Get Offended

“It’s always a Volvo, bud.”

ME: huh?

“A Volvo or a van…some jerkoff. Right here at 5:28 to be a pain in the ass.”

It was 5:29 at Butch’s Lube N’ Wash, and a Volvo had indeed arrived one minute before closing, and by ordering a lot of extra vacuum services, was indeed being a pain in the ass. My boss, the inimitable and unique “Brett,” had just gotten philosophical about what kinds of people show up at closing time and make a very annoying fuss, and it was funny to watch a Volvo roll in not one minute later.

After I’d chuckled about it, however, the more educated side of my brain thought it over. After all, that’s not entirely fair. Can he safely imply that Volvo drivers are more annoying than anybody else? No way. Had I wiped down many Volvos driven by fuss-free people who were generous with tips? Absolutely. Though I had probably seen a few more (old) Volvos and vans than other kinds of cars at closing time, it certainly wasn’t enough to generalize. Brett was simply far more inclined to stereotype, and that was true for his employees as well as customers. Once you were an annoying employee in a particular way more than once, you were annoying in that way forever. He’d never forget, and it didn’t matter if you never made the same mistake again. Guys would get so pissed off.
Hell, a lot of people I’ve known over the course of my life would be pissed. They’d find many of Brett’s views, particularly his stereotyping, to be extremely offensive. In fact, if they’d listened to him just say a few of those things, they’d probably write him off immediately. To hell with anybody who thoughtlessly stereotypes in this day and age, and therefore, to hell with him– and that’s where I differ from a lot of people I’ve known over the course of my life.

If you had to work with Brett for years, like I did, you would come to realize that there were a lot of things about him that were uniquely great. As frustrating as his stubbornness and closed mind can be, he has a moral sense that is as solid as you could ask for in a person. If you act like an asshole, you know he’ll call you out and that you can trust his motivation. Brett loves the simplicity of a life out of the rat race. His complete disregard for materialism is a rare and impressive thing as well. Above all, he is wise in a lot of different ways about human nature– when Brett has an opinion about how someone is likely to act, or what motivates someone to act in a certain way, people listen. It’s bound to be funny and correct. While I never formally learned anything more from him than how to efficiently give a car an “express” detail, a lot of the good things about him rubbed off on me over time. Traces of his presence can be felt in everything from my buying ethos to the management of my classroom. I still shake my head and laugh at some of his close-mindedness, of course. I wouldn’t want to BE him. After all, we’re all human beings: we suck at some things, and hopefully we’re great at some other things. If there is one thing we could all get better at, it’s learning from each other without having it be a giant identity issue. Appreciating what somebody has to offer doesn’t mean you whole-heartedly endorse EVERYTHING about that person.

But, you know what? Everything I see in our culture suggests otherwise. If I posted a few of Brett’s remarks to social media, especially the open and public kind, the reaction would be overwhelmingly hostile. “FUCK THIS GUY!! Anyone who thinks or says XYZ is a TOTAL asshole! I drive a Volvo, and this is just so incredibly offensive to me and every other Volvo driver!! He should be FIRED!” And on and on in that vein, no doubt. Brett would be branded unfit for any position of authority, or possibly any job at all with a respectable employer– and this is where I think a lot of people would be making huge mistakes. There is an odd religion of sorts taking hold in the 21st century: the belief in a mythical human being that contains all that is “right” with the world, and that anyone in leadership or the public eye in general who shows themselves to fall short can be justifiably cast down as a false idol. Anyone who could be called “offensive” in their outlook or actions in any way becomes a target.

I can’t help but shake my head at this attitude. The driving force behind it is good, I guess– to discourage backwardness and provincialism. But this mindset is itself ignorant and provincial. I can’t tell you how many times you fucking people offend me on a daily basis– mindlessly consuming things, buying clothes made by suffering children in sweatshops, eating dollar hamburgers produced by an agribusiness model that is destroying both the environment and your health– it offends the living shit out of me. And you do it because the culture you were raised in, most importantly your parents, took it for granted as a part of life– you know the bigger picture of the world would probably challenge a lot of the things you take for granted, but you don’t spend a lot of time thinking in that fashion. It’s uncomfortable. I get it. The point I am trying to make is that if I wrote any of you off (or this entire culture, for that matter) because of these very real concerns, I would be missing out on so many great things about you and about human life. This country and its culture, troubled though it is, has done many great things. You have, you can, and you will. In the meantime, I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for you all to think the things I want you to think. I have a lot to learn from you and much to enjoy in your company– a lot of which is going to challenge me in a very good way.

When I think of my own grandfather, now long since passed on, I don’t look back for shining examples of a lot of things I believe today. There were things about his world view that in retrospect I find to be deeply backward. Fortunately for me, these things were not able to separate him from me and prevent the many things he did teach me for which I’m deeply grateful: a sense of personal loyalty and work ethic that I absorbed over many years of observing his example. I think a lot of people would be better served with this kind of observation than they are with reading the business of perfect strangers on the internet and categorically denouncing them. It makes for a richer life. Brett would probably wave his hand at me dismissively, but I don’t have to agree with him!

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