Thursday, September 7, 2017

Partisanshp and Politeness

Today, just as the library service desk was closing, I was dealing with a history lecturer whose area of study is the Soviet Union. She's a very nice lady, she always chats with me. As I've mentioned elsewhere on this blog, I'm quite interested in the Soviet Union myself, partly because I'm a Rossophile but also because I'm intrigued by paternalistic regimes.

I asked her whether there were many people in the Soviet Union who were not happy when it fell apart, and who would have preferred it to survive. I'm interested in this because my own experience of being a dissenter has made me very sceptical of the "official version" of history.

She launched into a fairly long reply. This embarrassed me a little, as the service desk was supposed to be closing. But soon I felt embarrassed for another reason; it became obvious to me (as it had not been before) that the lecturer was sympathetic to the Soviet Union and took a dim view of its dissolution, and that she considered the Putin regime to be worse.

This left me in a bit of an awkward position. For all my fascination with the Soviet Union, I do of course see it as an Evil Empire, evil most of all in its godlessness. Perhaps I should have made this emphatically clear. I did tell her I was a conservative at one point, but that could mean anything. To be honest, I was perfectly happy for my nods and mumbles to be taken as expressions of agreement with what she was saying.

And I very often find myself in this situation. Once somebody has assumed I agree with them, especially if they've expressed themselves with some abandon, I find it extremely difficult to disabuse them of this notion. I don't want to embarrass them, or disconcert them. The shift of atmosphere from genial to less genial is very irksome, even painful. It's like cold water being poured on top of you in a warm bath. If I don't encounter the person very often, or I'm just having a one-off interaction with them, it's likely that I'll just let it go, to avoid embarrassment. I'm more embarrassed for them than for myself.

This is one of the (many) reasons I prefer culture wars to "dialogue". Culture wars seem more straightforward, honest and manly. Give me outright animosity over awkwardness any day. Antagonists can have a certain respect for each other-- even an affection. But erstwhile allies, or people who think they are allies and then realize they are not, can rarely escape feelings of disappointment, betrayal, and embarrassment.

(For the same reason, I usually tell new colleagues that I'm a "right-wing nutcase". I choose that phrase advisedly. If I just told them I was a conservative or traditionalist or Catholic, they'd probably interpret those words in a wishy-washy way and they'd end up being taken aback that I didn't agree with them on Brexit or Trump or gay marriage or some "equality" issue.)


  1. She probably has a point that the current regime is almost semi-fascist, with a touch of oligarchy, while some of the last leaders of the Soviet Empire did actually allow some air into the old communist regime. But taken as a whole, given it's entire history I don't know how she can favour USSR in an absolute, general way.
    Of course anyone anti-religious would dislike Putin's promotion of Russian orthodoxy. I suppose no one could really work in a university unless can converse with all sorts.

    1. Well, to be fair, we were talking about the last days of the Soviet Union so I very much doubt she would be cheerleading for Stalinism. Even still, I was taken aback.

  2. Having read that title as "Parsnip and Politeness," I find myself wondering just how much of the world I have misunderstood all these years from the vice of reading too fast.

    On a more serious note:

    "If I don't encounter the person very often, or I'm just having a one-off interaction with them, it's likely that I'll just let it go, to avoid embarrassment."

    I sympathize with that very heartily, and also agree with the view that it’s the other person’s potential embarrassment one feels the keenest—after all they have just opened up about a topic near and dear to them. I know there are cases when one should speak up regardless, and I pray I’ll recognize those as they hit me, and at least be able to put in a civil word. It would be kind of nice if one could go out in society with a large tag attached: VIEWS I DO NOT ASCRIBE TO, with the views listed and the disclaimer: “But really, I don’t hate your guts. Really. I just don’t agree with you.”

    1. Ha, yeah, that's an excellent idea! At one point, I made a badge that says: "I don't agree", but that was too cryptic.