Monday, December 05, 2011


I like to say I'm the kind of person who respects her elders. I stand and offer my seat on the bus when an elderly, tired, or handicapped person is near. My Southern manners are well-ingrained and I always say please and thank-you, yes ma'am and no sir when dealing with older people. (This is considered strange in the UK, and even insulting to some, so I've been trying to stop, also out of respect for the people I speak to.) Elderly people tend to strike up conversations with me in grocery stores and I'm always cordial and friendly, keeping things light, pleasant, and of a courteous duration. I know a lot of elderly people are lonely and feel threatened by youfs like me, and I don't want to be a part of the cold, scary world outside to good people who have been through so much.

But some people really abuse this aspect of my personality.

This past Sunday the fiancé and I were walking down the street on the way to the co-op for some cereal and toilet paper. It was chilly and grey but not actually raining so we were chatting and meandering when we both nearly slammed headlong into an elderly man with a cane who was intentionally blocking the entire sidewalk, which was itself enclosed by a wall on one side and a chain of cars on the other. I don't claim to know his mental health history but he spoke coherently and appeared fully aware of his surroundings, so I don't find the ensuing intrusion excusable on those grounds.

He asked Boy if he was a Christian. Boy smiled politely, said no, and moved to step away.

Our new friend proceeded to grab Boy on the shoulder and rest his weight there--remember the cane?--and begin to express his disappointment with me for allowing him to get to this state. He then waved his hands at me--hands with clean, well-maintained nails--and declared me to be weak of faith. He implored Boy to lead me down the right path and to head our family in a godly way--the kind of demeaning language that has gotten drinks tossed into the faces of several of my acquaintances--and then shifted his stance so he had Boy around the back of the neck and demanded that we pray with him.

Biting back a lot of things I said no thank you, have a good morning.

He kept right on, began to "oh dear lord" while trying to press Boy's forehead down to touch his.  Boy straightened, smiled awkwardly and motioned that he did not want to participate. The elderly man ignored this, said "just a short one" and started again. Oh dear lord...

Out of patience, I stated, "Sir, you are insulting us. Stop it. Leave us alone." and walked away.

Boy managed to shake him off and caught up with me a few seconds later, by which point I'd worked up a really good fury bubble.

Who the hell does he think he is? Does the fact that it is Sunday give him clearance to go forth and say rude nasty things to people in the streets? Does the fact that he's elderly give him a free pass to foist his misogynistic and mindless world-view on innocent passers-by? Does the fact he's a Christian give him the right to accost people who he doesn't approve of in the most offensive way possible?

A few days ago a woman was arrested after a video surfaced of her saying astonishingly racist and xenophobic things to a diverse group of people in a London tram. All you foreigners, why don't you go back where you came from, I don't even recognize My England anymore, etc--all she needed to say was "baaah!" and show her teeth to fully round out the street-tramp cliché. People asked her to stop, first politely, then with rapidly dwindling courtesy as her vitriol intensified. At least two individuals caught this on their phones from different angles, and she was tracked down and charged with using discriminatory language intended to incite violence and hatred.

I see no difference between the Tram Tramp and the, what I'm sure most people would declare, sweet and well-meaning elderly man who tried to "pray over us." It was offensive, it was intended to be offensive, and it was clear that our confronter felt he had the right to interfere in our lives, regardless of the fact that we were in no way seeking to engage his attention or challenge his views.

I don't give a hoot what people believe in the privacy of their own homes. In your quiet living room you could think your microwave is sending messages on your behalf to the disembodied voice of Orson Welles floating in a gaseous cloud in space. You can think that you are the source of all goodness and light, or that your penis grants you some ineffable divine right. You can be as insane as you want to and provided you are not doing harm to anyone else and you aren't making a nuisance of yourself I do not care. But the second you bring it into the streets, the second you demand someone else listen to your ravings, you are getting into harassment and anti-social behaviour territory. 

Importantly to this discussion, this elderly, feeble man reached out and grabbed Boy. Any attempt Boy might have made to free himself from this grip might have injured the man, something Boy was far too decent to risk. Yes, technically, he was not being held forcefully. But he abused our inherent decency to restrain and insult us.

Like everyone in England, I have the right to pass unmolested in my streets. I have the right to think how I want to think and not be held down and bullied about my lifestyle or opinions. Anyone who does so or attempts to do so is in clear violation of the law.

But I would never hold down an elderly man and tell him that his belief system is absurd anyway. I would never grip the body of another person and insult his way of life. I know this is not only mean and offensive but intolerant and not in the best interests of my community.

But for some reason we are obligated to tolerate these bullies, these gentle xenophobes who do not tolerate us and believe they do have the right to harass us in the streets.What, you want to press charges? A sweet old man annoyed you about religion for a few minutes while across town girls were being mugged? Sod off.
But had I done the same back, had I grabbed him and told him that the clear path to enlightenment and a valuable life is atheism and respecting women as your equals without any form of qualifier I would have been hauled off for assault.

If he wants to shout and try and hand out leaflets in the streets that is his business. Provided he recognizes my right to not engage and walk away, while I don't like what he's doing I am not going to get too bothered. In the grand scheme of things, I'm really even okay with letting the KKK and the Catholic League set up tables at fairs and markets, 'cos I don't have to listen and people who want to engage have an opportunity to enjoy some cathartic screaming. People who make a nuisance of themselves must be prepared to receive it in kind, and more so the more offensive they are. I'm confident the reason the Tram Tramp was charged was not because she was an asshole but because she had a captive and unwilling audience.

You want to do your best to offend your neighbours? Fine. But I better have the opportunity to ignore you.