July 01, 2023
Source: Bigstock Politeness is a virtue. However, just like all virtues, it becomes a vice when carried too far. It is not merely that it can be oleaginous; it can be pusillanimous, the cowardly avoidance of uneasy dispute when such dispute ends up being needed.
These ideas came to my mind at the bus drop in the village in England where I live. From time to time, I take the bus to the nearest station, and if I take it at a particular time, a man in his 60s who smells appallingly makes certain to be there. He is unclean as well as smelly; and if he sits at the back of the bus, one can still smell him at the front (and vice versa, naturally). This has actually been going on for years.
Undoubtedly he does not smell as bad as a patient I once had, a massive male in all directions, whose odor remained for a day or more in the health center passages down which he had but walked. It would have taken commercial cleaners with high-pressure hoses and strong detergents to get him tidy; for when, at my suggestion, he had tried to clean himself a little, but it had actually not worked. Rome wasn’t built in a day.
“Decent people are incapacitated by their charitable sensations and ideas, along with by their fear of discomfort in public.”
Nobody in all the years that the male in his 60s had actually taken the bus had told him that he smelled. Obviously, to inform someone that he smells is likely to anger him deeply. George Orwell explained a very long time ago that no insult is more deeply insulting than to inform someone that he smells. Moreover, those who smell presumably do not smell themselves, anymore than a snorer hears himself snoring. In this connection (I discuss it only for the sake of interest), I recall the notification in the hippopotamus house in the London Zoo when I was a kid: “Please excuse the odor,” a hippo was supposed to have actually written, “however we like it.” Even then, at the age of 10, I doubted that the hippos were aware of their own smell in another species’ opinion.
Why had no one told the guy at the bus stop that he smelled? It was hardly for absence of chance. Was it politeness or cowardice? They are not totally contradictory: The silence probably partook of both. One does not like to upset others; one does not like to make a scene. As an outcome of our mutual politeness-cum-pusillanimity, countless individuals have for years had to put up with a bad smell. San Francisco, I expect, is this scenario on a larger scale.
In the latter case, nevertheless, there is also the element of ideology. When I talked, sotto voce, about the stinky male to my spouse who was with me in the bus line, she stated, “Pauper, he should have had a challenging life.” Definitely, he didn’t appear he had decreased from a fortunate existence to his existing state, as some down-and-outs (or is the correct plural downs-and-out!.?.!?) manage to do. He had the way of a guy who was bad and had constantly been bad.
“But,” I replied to my spouse, “there must be lots of people who had a life as hard as his, who nevertheless clean and don’t smell.” Among the blessings of product progress is that even poor individuals can keep tidy with a little effort. This was when not the case. “To a level,” I included, “he should have made his own life.”
This may have been extreme; maybe he was a lost soul who had been widowed early in life. One worries to be harsh much more than one fears to be overindulgent– which is another type of unfairness.
As it occurs, not far from the queue was a young degenerate, if I may be allowed that outdated term. He had a well-fed and rather good-looking dog with him as he sat on the ground, the pet dog acting both as a companion and an assurance that he would not be relocated to a hostel for the homeless, for such hostels do not accept pet dogs. I am sure that he genuinely enjoyed his dog, whose state of health contrasted extremely positively with that of his master; at least, he loved him when clear-minded enough after taking drugs to do so. Human beings had probably provided him even more problems than any canine. At any rate, he certainly chose to sleep in entrances than in hostels for the homeless. For the previous few months, he had actually resided in one specific doorway near the bus stop, in which he nightly spread his mess.
Regrettably, he has a guitar along with a canine but is entirely lacking talent. Nonetheless, he demands singing for alms; more than once I have thought to ask him how much he would require to stop. His tuneless droning of songs with very little merit even if sung properly is the last thing one wants unavoidably to hear at a bus stop at 8 in the early morning. An old lady (I call her such in full awareness that I was most likely a year or more older than she) looked at me, and we both smiled faintly.
“Noise,” she stated.
“Contamination,” I replied– but obviously neither people did anything about it.
The degenerate did not look the aggressive type, and in any case it is difficult to stab someone from a sitting position, but we did not wish to hurt his sensations. To inform somebody that his singing hurts to the ears is not rather as bad as informing him that he smells, but the info is unlikely to be received with appreciation and a guarantee to reform by taking lessons. We had not long to wait for the bus and would quickly be able to put the noise behind us; our distress was not great enough to be worth risking a scene to reduce it.
From the pure conceptual angle, the option to the smell and sound at the bus stop was easy: The very first guy had to wash and the second to stop playing. In practice, however, things were rather harder. Respectable people are paralyzed by their charitable sensations and thoughts, in addition to by their fear of unpleasantness in public. Therefore the quality of regional life is enabled to degrade a little.
Theodore Dalrymple’s newest book is Ramses: A Narrative, published by New English Review.