Tuesday, March 15, 2011


Butt in or butt out? 


Most of us want to do the right thing. And we like to think, when presented with a situation where the moral high ground is clear, that we’d step up without considering the cost.
Reality check. 
Two episodes that occurred this week proved to me that it (as Gershwin put it) “tain’t neccesarily so.”
The community center where I work out four or five times a week is an egalitarian sort of place. People of all ages, sizes, races, and sexes huff and puff over the torture devices presented as exercise machines. Others take aerobic classes, do crafts, play basketball, shoot pool, and generally recreate. For the most part, it is a friendly, accommodating place with lots of smiles, “good mornings,” and a mellow vibe.
That’s why it was so disturbing, after my post workout shower, shave and fluff dry to listen to a rant by a fellow denizen of the locker room. It began innocently enough with a comment to another man toweling off, asking if he’d heard that several American GI’s had been killed in Germany. I hadn’t heard the news so I found myself listening in on their conversation.
Things soon degenerated into a red-faced rant about the “Kosovo raghead” who fired the shots that killed our soldiers. From there it swung into a slur against our “asshole president” who encourages “all the ragheads” and who is more sympathetic to “Muslim foreigner ragheads” than he is to “our country.” Not long after that I discovered that Mr. Ranter didn’t believe our “asshole president” (he seemed fond of that expression) hadn’t been born in this country, had stolen the election, wanted to take away our guns, give our hard-earned money to people who wanted to leech off the system, and, it seemed to him, was probably the anti-Christ.
Moment of truth.
Do I confront this guy? Obviously he was bigoted, fact-challenged (Obama’s birth certificate is a matter of public record) and frustrated that the world wasn’t the white-guy dominated, evangelical Christian, automatic-weapons-in-every-household Nirvana he thought it should be. I fantasized about showing him the folly of his ways in a calm, matter-of-fact voice, asking him why being a hater made him feel better about himself.
But I didn’t.
Instead, I tuned my ears to my internal blah-blah-blah radio station to drown out his mindless diatribe, finished drying and dressing and hit the exit before I lost it and unloaded on him. My rationale. There’s no way I could have made my points. This guy didn’t rate to be a great listener. Things would have escalated. This is the stuff fistfights are born of.
Here’s my question. Should I have taken him on? Is it our moral imperative to try to cut off this kind of ignorant nonsense, even when we know we’ll accomplish nothing? Changing the hearts and minds of people like that is like trying to convince rain not to fall from the sky? Can’t be done.
What’s your take on it? Butt in or butt out?
          The second incident happened at a thrift store. My wife and I are inveterate second-hand store shoppers and popped in to look around. I found a great Hawaiian shirt and a pair of used blue jeans in great shape that fit perfectly—not as easy as it sounds for a guy who wears a 38 inch waist and a 28 inseam. The store was busy and there were only two check stands open. People stood good-naturedly waiting their turn.
          Things began to unravel when a middle-aged woman, twitchy as a small dog in a room full of flamenco dancers, dumped an armload of clothing on the counter in front of an already harried cashier. The woman sorted through the apparel, firing staccato questions at the clerk, holding the labels up to her face, tossing items back on the stack. She’d select several, hand them over to be scanned, then change her mind, demand them back, and select two or three others.
The beginnings of customer mutiny, a non-verbal wave of shared thought, rippled through the line behind her. The woman was taking more than her share of time, she was a pain in the rear end, she was embarrassing, and she needed to decide and get on with it.
          But the woman jangled and jumped and rambled, her hands in constant motion, her face a writhing den of snakes, her eyes darting back and forth like my memory of Richard Nixon’s. At one point she pulled a dirty wad of assorted bills from a wallet and counted them. Over and over and over again. Then she went back to picking at the clothes, asking the checker to take one blouse off her tab and add another.
The cycle of compulsive repetitive behavior grew and grew and grew until it became the polka-dotted hippopotamus in the room. Impossible to ignore. By now the line had grown to mythical proportions. Supervisors hovered, perplexed looks on their face, trying to decide what to do. They interrupted another employee’s lunch and opened another checkstand. People looked on with stunned and sad expressions.
          The woman was surely mentally ill or on drugs. Or both. I’d seen similar behavior by the tweakers who frequent the convenience store where I used to stop at for coffee at 4 a.m. on my way to perform my morning radio show. Mr. Methamphetamine, how do you like your lovely bride?
          Like everyone else in line, I wondered what I should do. This person, this human being, was a time bomb. Sooner or later she would hurt herself or someone else. What was my responsibility as a citizen—as someone who wants to do what’s right?
          She finally paid for her merchandise and the cashier began ringing up others. Still, the woman stood at the end of the counter, shuffling her feet and mumbling words in the foreign language of a raging brain.
          In the car, we talked about the problems this woman faced and what could be done. When I related the story to a friend, he thought we (or at least someone) should have called 911. But life gets pretty complicated at that point, not just for the woman, but also for witnesses. Was the situation dire enough to involve the police and/or medical emergency personnel?
What are your thoughts? Butt in or butt out? 


  1. I tend to be non-confrontational. So label me as a butt-outsky.

  2. I clam up when it comes to politics. Minds are rarely changed by getting into an argument. Since I'm a news junkie I am happy to discuss world events but when somebody starts regurgitating Fox News "facts" they turn into barking dogs and I shut down. I have an in-law that is conservative and he likes to bait me. I think it pisses him off that I don't give it back. Just not worth it.
    As for the second incident some people like to make a spectacle of themselves. If annoyance is the only damage I let it ride. If somebody is getting hurt then it's good Darwin-ism to protect the herd.

  3. About the second incident:I firmly believe it is not a police matter. At least not as you presented it. No crime being committed, and the justice system and mental health issues (or sometimes "under influence" issues mixed in) simply do not interface well. If the person was visibly intoxicated and jumped in the driver's seat after leaving, maybe different.
    Regarding the first incident, it depends on how the person is coming across. I probably wouldn't have said much because bullying behavior ramps up significantly when people try to reason with bullies, and that's what it seems this type of person is. As it is, when I see all sorts of this stuff in the media I have to remove myself from engaging with it at the risk of getting an ulcer, insomnia and high blood pressure if I keep it in my face. I can't afford to get myself as worked up as I've been getting lately.

  4. Mike:
    Wow! That is a tough one. I think each person needs to play a situation to their strengths. Confronting a mentally ill person can be unproductive if you aren’t trained. I do enjoy confronting certain right wing hangers on (not the zealots who fall into the category of your mentally ill person). I intentionally sat with a row of Tea Party members at a state budget hearing recently. I asked for their stories and discovered that they were scared, unemployed, and had been lied to by just about everyone. We left as friends, with them feeling respected, but a little less sure of the party positions. If the only tool I had was too tell them what assholes they were, things would have not been as much fun.
    However, I am also a trained parent educator. Whenever I see a mother slapping around an unruly child in the checkout line, I hesitate to get involved as bad as that can be. I am a big guy and many angry women have suffered enough intimidation by men. I usually wait for another woman to intervene and support her. It is a fine line…
    So my vote is to confront smart -- Respect, sensitivity and self awareness seem to be the key. A course in mediation helps too!

  5. When I performed an issues based radio show in Eugene, I billed myself as "The Militant Moderate." But you couldn't get zealots of either stripe to believe that. If you didn't exactly parrot the prized beliefs (and in many cases misconceptions) of those on the right you became a "liberal." If you didn't subscribe to the party line for those on the far left they believed you were a "right winger." I happen to believe most Americans are neither.

  6. Good point (about moderates). The expression “If you aren’t part of the solution you are the problem” was devised to bully moderates. The reason most people I know don’t like to discuss politics, religion, gender, etc. is that extremists hijack the conversation. My standard response is that polemic is for people disinterested in solutions. By the time the zealots figure out how to spell polemic and look it up, the world has been spared their shrill voices for a short, but satisfying interval.