Adab, more or less

I’d like to think that I am usually polite; that even if I am unhappy with a turn of events, I can control my words, and arrange my outward face. Of course I’ve lived with myself long enough to know that is not always true. Sometimes I can no more control my emotions than a barometer can ignore the pressures building all around it. There are those who can, I realize, but I find it hard to trust them; I would still fear a lion purring.

But, Age is a time for reflection; a time for scrutinizing eulogies before the final act. It is a time to wonder if the road I’ve taken has been heading in the right direction after all these years. Of course, at this stage I suppose I’m stuck with whatever destination awaits me on arrival. Still, it never hurts to look around.

There was a time I wondered if I could settle for something  like an Islamic adab: adopting an appropriate etiquette I could mould for any occasion; never find myself bereft of manners; maintaining an even keel no matter the storm. But I knew it would never work. That is not who I am -or, at least, not who I have come to be. My mouth has memorized the sounds to use, yet my eyes know how to say what words dare not.

It has not stopped me from searching for a panacea, however -a seemly response I could pretend was appropriate decorum. I even liked the word: decorum, festooned as it is with historical niceties. I assumed, at first, that it was a species of etiquette forged in a tradition more impolite, and less commodious than the inscrutability I associate with the Middle East, and yet eminently useable from day to day in the world I inhabit. But, I admit that I turned for help to a short essay that purported to explain the concept and history of decorum. It was written by Rob Goodman, at the time a postdoctoral researcher in the department of political science at McGill University in Montreal:

The word had its practical origins in the Greco-Roman world, apparently. ‘For the ancients, decorum was not identical with politeness or good manners. It made room for disruptive or impassioned speech – indeed, the very kind of speech that today might be branded as lacking in decorum… Cicero [an ancient Roman statesman, lawyer, scholar, and philosopher] defined decorum not as an inflexible code of conduct, but as the fit between an action and a moment, or between words and a rhetorical situation. To speak decorously is to say precisely what the moment demands.’

At first, I admit, I was happy with that definition and the concept of decorum it described, but apparently Cicero ‘associates the capacity to meet the moment with the virtue of moderation. But the moderation that matters here is a dynamic moderation, a constant process of attuning and adjusting. Decorum is the wisdom the orator uses ‘to adapt himself to occasions and persons’.’ Even more troubling however, was Goodman’s explanation that ‘there is no decorum in the abstract, and scarcely any way to specify ahead of time which words will qualify. Acting with decorum is more like walking a tightrope than following an etiquette handbook… decorum might require actions that are breaches of propriety under normal circumstances, but are transmuted into appropriate ones under pressure.’

He believes ‘thinking of decorum as a flexible, dynamic concept helps to resist uses of the term that tend to silence the political speech and action of the marginalised. Further, retaining the concept of decorum gives us… the ability to speak to an audience, rather than at it.’ But  I think this interpretation allows too much leeway for pleasing whoever is being addressed -currying their favour- rather than apprising them of the truth as it exists. In considering this ancient use though, Goodman points out that ‘reliance on decorum is a vital condition for thinking democratically: a belief that when we speak, we are accountable to our listeners.’

Still, I have to ask: accountable for what –for the approval of the audience because the speaker is saying what they hoped to hear? It seems to me that political discourse in a democracy would better serve the population if it attempted to guide its thinking along lines that would improve the outcome for all, not just the audience. Decorum that merely reads the listener’s mood and modifies the message to conform and please, strikes me more as pandering, than informing.

But, of course, decorum doesn’t only apply to political discourse. Good taste and propriety is a laudable goal in everyday interactions, one would think. It surely doesn’t have to speak of inauthenticity: ‘presenting a different self to the world at different times,’ as Goodman jibes, nor need it necessarily involve ‘manipulative hypocrisy’. There is something to be said for the ability to soothe the mood in an everyday conversation with accommodating suggestions, and a calm demeanour. That’s really what I’m hoping for -a kludge, I suppose… something that works with elders, as well.

I am often at my wits end with Harold. Since his recent retirement, we meet most Thursday mornings at the coffee shop because his wife isn’t used to having him around the house. Harold is actually younger than me, but we’re both long in the tooth and equally irascible -not a good combination.

At any rate, Harold feels he has to take out his frustration on me because, being single, I obviously don’t understand how a wife could suddenly turn into a different person after fifty-something years of marriage. I haven’t known him very long, perhaps, but if his current personality is anything to go by, I have to wonder why she stuck with him for so long.

I tried what I believe to be the adab approach -keeping an even keel and trying to be uber-understanding and well-mannered- but my approach seemed too buffered to suit him. If her behaviour wouldn’t irritate me as well, he’d say, then I just didn’t understand –couldn’t understand.

I tried switching tactics and agreed that he had every right to be upset. She obviously didn’t realize what he was going through since retirement.

But as soon as I said that, he stared at me in confusion. “Helen’s a good woman, don’t get me wrong, G.” He gulped at his coffee as if it were challenging him as well. “She tries to understand.” He sent his eyes to press painfully on my cheeks. “You make her sound like a shrew I need to tame, or something…”

I suppose I shouldn’t have smiled at his Shakespearian reference quite so quickly -it seemed to put him off. “You see why it’s so hard to talk about this stuff to an unanchored bachelor?” he said, slowly shaking his head like a defensive husband. “You have no idea about the dynamics in a marriage, do you G” he added, tightening his eyes even more.

His attitude was beginning to anger me. He felt the need to complain about his life, but saw me as a naïf when I tried to understand his situation.

“Oh for god’s sake, Harold!” I finally blurted in exasperation when he furrowed his brow. “Just listen to yourself, why don’t you? It really sounds like you and your wife both need a spanking, or something…” I realized how silly that was as soon as it came out of my mouth. “I mean you’re both acting like children!”

Suddenly his whole demeanour changed and he actually chortled. “You really have a way with words, G… You’ve nailed it, you know.” He shook his head in amazement as if I’d inadvertently helped him with something. He gulped down the rest of his coffee and stood to leave.

“Where are you going, Harold?” I asked, glancing at the clock on the wall. “It’s only 10:30. Helen will have your hide…”

A big lob-sided grin appeared on his face. “That’s what I’m hoping, G… That’s what I’m hoping,” he repeated then shook my hand and walked away.

I think we both finally learned something… but I’m not sure if it had anything to do with decorum.

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