Friday, December 17, 2004

Judging books

I'm a firm believer in enjoying all sorts of pleasures: I'll gorge myself quite contentedly on a farm-style breakfast or the king-sized version of a Kit Kat but I can also appreciate a fine dry-aged steak served medium rare with a mash of baby leeks on the side. I like foreign language films (except ones in French: the sound of the language grates for me) and I love to watch Desperate Housewives. Some pleasures are coarser than others and some pleasures might take more acclimatization to appreciate than others, but pleasures are pleasures. Having said that, though, I realize that even if a novel by Danielle Steele deals with some of the same themes (betrayal, love, family ties, the effects of world-events on individuals) as one by Tolstoy or Dostoevsky or Mann, they aren't equivalent in artistic merit. And, the fact that they deal with the same matters, or both give pleasure or both are equally useful as doorstops doesn't make them the same thing.

All I'm saying is that as silly as it is to judge a book by its cover (although I do resist buying any book with a movie-tie-in cover) it's just as silly to judge a book by what uses it can be put to: giving pleasure, telling its readers something about broader themes, holding a door open. And, if it's wrong to judge a book that way, it's much, much worse to judge a person that way. But these seem to be the two standards by which we usually judge people. I have no doubt that this is worse in the gay microcosm where I spend most of my time, but microcosms, too, reflect something about the macrocosms of which they are part.

Item, the first. I'm a fairly muscular man, hardly a body-builder, but it would be fair to say that I work out religiously, in at least one of the original senses of 'religio'--conscientiousness or scrupulosity. And I realize there's probably a deep and troubling psychological explanation for this as well; I'm self-aware enough to realize I have neuroses, but not enough to want to remove them, having explored them to their depths. Spending time developing my body is an organizing activity of my life, though not the only, nor even the primary, one. So, when I get involved in a conversation about politics or philosophy or my favorite movies or authors with mere acquaintances, they often tell me that they are surprised that I would have thought about the things I have or that I have the opinions I do. After all since I am big, I must be dumb or simply uninterested in any matters of intellectual import. In other words, if I care about the exterior of the building, I must not have bothered to furnish it.

This, of course, is the familiar phenomenon of judging a book by its cover. Since it is so familiar, it's less interesting. And, while it's annoying, it's not as troublesome to me as the second--and, I think, allied phenomenon--judging a book by the uses to which it can be put.

Item, the second. As often as I have to tell people that there are plenty of muscular men or attractive women and men who are, may the Heavens forefend, nonetheless intelligent, thoughtful and interesting people, I am forced to tell them that there are plenty of bartenders, physical laborers, desk-clerks, drivers, waitstaff, baristas, etc., who have exactly the same properties.
You see, I have more than one job, and in the opinions of some people I meet, they are greatly divergent jobs. On the one hand, I'm an adjunct philosophy instructor--someday, Oh someday, I'll finish my dissertation and be a real live professor, the Blue Fairy willing--and on the other, I tend bar. I also do some freelance writing once in a while, but it's the teaching and the bartending that keep me eating, and I do like to eat. Often, when someone sitting at my bar hears that I teach, too, they try to suppress their surprise and then tell me how interesting that is. Sometimes they will just come out and tell me that they assumed I was just a bartender. Sometimes, before they've learned what my other job is, they will ask me if I really want to bartend for the rest of my life and whether I've ever thought about getting an education. Or sometimes they will ask me whether, since I teach, I teach physical education. Once I had someone ask me if what I taught was philosophy of sport; I replied curtly that my area of interest was actually philosophy of mind. And, often, when the conversation has gone on for a bit, as it sometimes does on quiet nights, they'll tell me that I'm pretty smart for a bartender. And right there is the very center of the problem.

It's the 'smart for a bartender' or 'just a bartender' that sticks in my craw. This is meant as a compliment, of course, and I accept it as such, even if I'm not so good at taking praise. But it's not a compliment full-stop. Instead, it's a comparative compliment. I'm not just being told that I've been judged to be of at least passable intelligence; I'm being told that, unlike other bartenders, I have actual thoughts. But that's just an instance of being told that, in general, my interlocutor judges people not just by their appearances but also by the uses to which they are put occupationally. Since a person is a bartender, they must only be so intelligent--perhaps smart enough to remember lots and lots of drinks and their prices and make change correctly most of the time, but not smart enough to worry or think about foreign policy trends, the meaning of life or whether religious belief, quite apart from being true, is ultimately an estimable organizing principle for a human life. If they are making these sort of job-based assumptions about bartenders, then it's only fair to assume that they make these assumptions about gardeners and desk-clerks and bus- and truckdrivers and the list goes on and on.

And, that's just silly. There are, of course, jobs, occupations and avocations that assume a certain high level of intelligence. If you are an astrophysicist, you are probable pretty damned intelligent. If you understand the intricacies of contract law or thoracic surgery, you aren't an intellectual slouch. But this sort of assumption only works at the upper end, it doesn't and cannot work at the 'lower' end. The fact that someone is engaged in menial or service work or whatever other sort of labor we tend not to admire or value very highly doesn't show anything about that person's intellectual gifts, anymore than their attractiveness or physical prowess does. As my grandfather--a very smart and intellectually curious man if just a heating and cooling technician and salesman--used to say, 'It all pays the same.' Of course, it doesn't all pay the same, but the point remains: there is nothing undignified in working in most any job if it keeps you and those you care about living.

After all, Socrates was just a potter who made copies of religious statues, Spinoza was just a lens-grinder, Kafka was just a clerk in an insurance office, Jefferson was just an unsuccessful farmer and, if you're so-inclined, Jesus was just a carpenter and Muhammad was just a merchant in the employ of his first wife. For the most part, jobs are just jobs, and the majority of people work to live; their lives are not defined or fairly-evaluated in terms of what puts bread on their tables. And, if you are unable to see that fact, you will never grasp that their can be anything of value in any human being per se. So, the next time you tell me that I'm smart for a bartender or, when I make a mistake in making your drink that 'at least I'm pretty', you'll understand the momentary grimace before I smile, laugh and say 'Thank you'.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

After reading this posting I find myself looking back at all the times I have heard similar "compliments" given to me over the years of retail and wait-staff work I have been employed in. I couldn't agree with Tyler more about how the people I deal with everyday actually think of me as their slave of sorts. Yes it is true that I am in the customer service industry and yes it is my job to help you find the correct size, shape, color, and fit without charging you the wrong amount and to do so with a smile. However, it is not my job to put up with your righteous attitude and ego just because you came to my place of employment.

The fact is that I actually have 2 degrees one in science and one in design. And although I am far from being muscular or attractive, the truth is that I choose to be in this profession. I still read books, LOTS of them actually, I still watch the news, and I can even tell you whether or not the ground you are standing on is the best for you to build your house on. The truth is that most of the people I deal with are not as educated as I am, even if they are better looking or have/make more money then I do. Mostly, they are trust fund babies or wealthy "ladies who lunch" who spend the money their rich husbands/fathers make.

It is sad that we base our judgments of people on their professions and their physical attributes. And I would be lying if I told you I was not guilty of it from time to time. I do however, try to be conscious of it and make the conscious effort not to do it. I have met a lot of great people over the counter and who pour my drinks. A few of them are even judges, lawyers, and doctors now. Everyone starts off somewhere. Remember THAT the next time you are you are ordering food or buying your $200 jeans. Please don’t assume that we are all dumb and that this is the ONLY job we could get. Cheers to you Ty for giving us a voice.