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Talking politics

And the demise of etiquette

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Since when have we forgotten WE SHOULDN’T TALK POLITICS (OR RELIGION) ON THE DINNER TABLE? I mean, what would Emily Post say? But, I guess, times have changed and so have the rules of engagement, like we all agree we should keep our smartphones in our pockets when we check into a dining room, but anyway we end up spending an inordinate amount of time fiddling with our phones between bites and during pauses in the dinner conversation. Etiquette, indeed, since we made an everyday expression of “Get real!”, has taken a backseat to what we truly feel, what we consider important, who we are at any given moment, regardless of the timing. The standard answer to the question “how are you?” at a cocktail party is “I’m all good, thank you, and you?” but this is also among the reasons polite society has been accused of being superficial, even inauthentic, and much of that is tackled in pop culture, in movies as old as Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and James Cameron’s The Titanic and in literature as classic as Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest and William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Of course, we all know how reality TV shows as pervasive as Keeping Up with the Kardashians have allowed us to indulge in vulgarities that so-called class and courtesy have long relegated to whispered secrets and revelations we used to keep from spilling out completely by covering our mouths mid-sentence and mumbling, “I beg your pardon I didn’t mean to put it that way.”

But it’s true there’s so much we can say if we are allowed to raise our voice a few decibels above a whisper, especially for women, though, for the longest time before the sexual liberation of the ’70s, they had been told to “SPEAK SOFTLY and the world strains their ears to listen.” Nowadays, you can’t shush people. If you find it too noisy, go find another room or put on earplugs. On social media, if you find their wall on Facebook too offensive and, replete with all caps, multiple exclamation points, and violent invectives, too jarring to the senses, stay away, unfollow, unfriend. It’s a mystery to me that we think Facebook or Twitter is our private space, in which we can do anything, including sharing opinion completely devoid of facts, when these platforms are no less public than the street or the town hall.  But in a world where we are all equal, since Madonna urged us, “Express Yourself,” the volume of our voices has often been associated with the strength of our convictions. I’ve tried it myself—I’d tuck my fangs in my mouth and some people, thinking I’m meek and mild, will have no fear of my bite and, if they could, walk all over me or push me over (not that anyone has succeeded, except in their heads). It’s sad that in the jungle, you do have to beat your chest like a gorilla or hiss aloud like a cobra for people to give you respect.

What happened to honor? My mother used to tell me, “JUST BECAUSE YOU CAN DOESN’T MEAN YOU SHOULD,” but we do, we do. We run for public office though we don’t have a fraction of what it takes to be effective in that office. We take advantage of our personal relationship with a company owner to disparage a colleague who works under him. We let out all this vitriol against a friend because, well, we know so much and somebody asks what we think. We order caviar and Champagne at a Michelin star restaurant and make such criminal statements as “Poverty is a choice. You can really get out of it if you move heaven and earth,” making a mental note to leave a P500 tip to the waiter, who has been more than solicitous and subservient (although he probably earns much less for the day than the cost of our appetizer). We take on jobs, going through the whole series of exams, interviews, orientation, and training, only to waste all that time, not only ours but that of many others, by quitting in three months because, well, we can. We hurl obscenities at each other at no cost to us. Cuss away because you can—no one can reach out to you through the screen of your smartphone to slap you in the face or give you a sock in the eye in reaction to your offensive words and virulent behavior. We send vile, vulgar messages to Senator Leila De Lima because, well, her number has been made public and yes, we can, yes, we can!

How to keep it impersonal when the topic of discussion is as personal as our future? How to keep it chill in this day and age, at this particular time, when politics is no longer off-limits at a dinner party or on a road trip with people that, outside of politics, are our friends? But just because we haven’t gone anywhere beyond Mars doesn’t mean that what lies out there is of no consequence to us, so yes, the rule still follows: DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY. It’s hard to bear it and grin when you see through the hypocrisy, such as that of someone on my friends list on Facebook who argues for objectivity and critical thinking in the media by punctuating her every word with expletives, her meaning lost in her own drivel, her insecurity hardly camouflaged by her puffed up ego and foul language. But other people’s brute behavior does not justify yours. I’ll try to keep in mind what my mama would always tell me that what irks me right now is temporary, it will pass, no matter how riled up I feel, how angered, how vexed, unless I make it permanent by saying things, or writing words I might soon regret.

There is an underlying reason for every rule in the book, whether it is DRINK TO THE RIGHT, EAT TO THE LEFT or anything else that we now consider mere affectations, even if they have practical functions, such as to make sure that, at a dinner party, we do not eat off somebody else’s bread plate or drink from somebody else’s wine cup. After all, “Take me for who I am” now translates to “I’m a slob, and I lie, and I speak like a spacecraft taking off, and ‘I spit like a man,’ do you have a problem with that?”

And that underlying reason is a call for the one rule that shouldn’t come and go with the seasons, the one rule that is set in stone, the one rule that can unite us despite our many differences, the one rule that allows us to share the same space harmoniously, the one rule that can keep us at the same table when we have to be there, even if we would rather be some place else. That rule, in a word, is RESPECT.

Follow the author on Twitter and Instagram @aapatawaran.