It’s a PG sort of coffee shop

In Sam Raimi’s film, For the Love of the Game, he sets up a scene in an airport bar. An insensitive boor begins regaling the woman on the barstool next to him with his extensive knowledge of the Yankees. [1] He can name a Yankee for every uniform number. She shuts him down. “Please don’t,” she says. He is offended. “It used to be you can’t smoke in a bar. Now you can’t talk in a bar? This isn’t a church, lady.”

He’s right. Obnoxious as he is, he is right. He is in a bar watching TV and talking baseball.

I was thinking about that scene this morning when a group of us were sitting at ourp g 5 Starbucks grappling with the recent spate of sexual abuse accusations made against public figures. A small party came in to sit at the table next to us: a young couple, a small child and an infant. The mother had scarcely settled in her chair when she came over and asked us to watch our language, there being a small child within earshot.

We were flabbergasted and we didn’t handle it very well. There were six of us; all parents and most of us, grandparents.  We had not been using any words that could reasonably have offended this hypervigilant mother; it was the topic itself that made her wary. What did Judge Roy Moore really do? Is that like or unlike what Senator Al Franken is being accused of? How about President Trump? How about former President Clinton?

The clear indication that we were flabbergasted comes in two observations. The first is that although we attempted to change to another topic, we failed. I don’t ever remember this group failing to come up with one topic after another that engaged our interests.

Several of our group were seriously resentful about the request that had been put to us. The resentment distorted what would otherwise have been a more agile management of the conversation. There were recurrent proposals that we return to the old topic, but we didn’t all feel that was the right thing to do.

The second indication is that the lasting topic, the one we did turn to, was: who the hell is she to tell us not to talk about public events in our coffee shop? That’s what reminded me of the garrulous fan.

What’s at stake here?

You can begin at the public discourse end or at the protective mother end. Either way, you get to the place where the rubber meets the road. Here are the two versions.

  • Given that public discourse on public issues is crucially important, how much right to prevent that discourse does a mother have who is concerned about what words her preschool child might hear?
  • Given that a mother has every right to protect her child from experiences she feels will be detrimental to him/her, how much right does she have to ask that others in a coffee shop exercise a little restraint in the words they use in public?

A little restraint

Two questions bear on the respectability of this mother’r request. The first is, “Is it reasonable?” The second it, “Does she have other options?”

p g 2It’s hard to say that her fears were unreasonable, given that the topic—which, I remind you, was allegations of sexual abuse made about public figures—was potentially offensive. I good way to approach this would be to ask how likely it is that offensive things will be said, how harmful it would be if offensive things were said. Since she didn’t have any way to judge either question, she set the bar for her own action very low. These six old people might say something I would not want my child to hear and it might damage him or her. [2]  I am trying to imagine the six of us having the kind of impact on this mother that this picture is intended to have.

Does she have other options? Sure. She could have taken her child to some other kind of place—not a coffee shop. She could have sat at some other part of that coffee shop. She could have invented herself in distracting her child from what was being discussed at the next table. [3]

Public Discourse

This particular group has been gathering at this particular Starbucks for quite a number of years. “Politics,” broadly construed, is a common topic. Although you can’t tell by looking at the group, it’s a pretty well behaved group. We have adopted rules against offensive language in the group (we call it flame throwing) and against moral aggressiveness (we call it proselytizing). There is no way for this mother to know that, but we know it and we took it into account when she warned us to watch our language.

It is not hard to make the case that opposition to the democracy-destroying actions of the Trump administration need urgently to be discussed by the citizens and that is what coffee shops, from the time of the Revolutionary War and before, have been used for. And that’s what we were doing. Being asked not to do that because of the personal qualm of a single hypervigilant mother seems like asking a lot.

p g 3After the woman had gone back to her table and her infant and her preschooler and her husband, some members of our group recovered a little from the shock and engaged in a brisk game of Shoudasaid. We shouldasaid, “Everyone here is a parent and a grandparent. We don’t need your guidance about what kind of language to use.” We shouldasaid, “We will be careful not to say anything we wouldn’t want our own grandchildren to hear.” We shouldasaid, “Thanks for sharing your feelings, but we are going to have the conversation we had begun and if you don’t like it, there are other tables you might occupy.” We shouldsaid, “You want us to what? Really?”

There were other proposals, but those capture the flavor of the main proposals. I felt that way myself. I’m not very tolerant of being shushed, particularly by strangers and particularly when I am not doing anything I think I should be shushed about. So I was feeling pretty aggressive and was thinking of saying something back. I am sure I would have justified it by referring to “preserving the space required for effective public discourse,” but the emotional truth of the matter is that I felt I had been reprimanded and I wanted to hit back. [4]

I think that my own thinking has moved, in the time since that occasion, in the direction of “the PG coffee shop.” Not only is PG the least innocuous of the movie designations, but it also suggests that “parental guidance” is suggested. The mother came to our table to give us the guidance the thought we needed, but she was not our parent. I think I wish most that she had provided for her child the guidance that would have allowed the discussions going on all around her to continue as they were.

[1] The joke for us as viewers is that the pitcher for the Detroit Tigers who is pitching against the Yankees that day is this woman’s husband. The garrulous fan never learns that, but it is a nice touch for us.
[2] This might be the time to ask whether the case would have different if she were worried about being offended herself or her husband being offended. If she herself had been abused by a public figure or if she know that her husband gets violent when he hears such matters being discussed, then she knows things that none of us could possibly know and either of which could justify an action that, otherwise, seems very controlling.
3] This woman didn’t win any point from our group by turning immediately to her phone and ignoring her child (and her husband) completely. We would have thought that was bad behavior anyway, but since she had just slapped our collective wrist, we were inclined to hold this particular action against her.
[4] Had I been so moved, I would have cited political theorist Hannah Arendt:
However, since it is a creation of action, this space of appearance is highly fragile and exists only when actualized through the performance of deeds or the utterance of words.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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