The Magazine

Let’s Misbehave

Sometimes it’s a Good Thing to be bad.

Feb 20, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 22 • By JOHN SIMON
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1. You don’t know the convention but ought to.

2. You don’t know the convention and cannot reasonably be expected to know it.

3. You know the convention, are not aware of violating it, but ought to be.

4. You know the convention, are not aware of violating it, but your lack of awareness is excusable.

5. You know the convention, are aware you are violating it, but are not purposely being rude (that is, being rude is not part of your intention); however the violation is inexcusable.

6. You know the convention, are aware you are violating it, but are not purposely being rude; and the violation is excusable.

7. You know the convention, are aware of violating it, and are purposely but inexcusably being rude.

8. You know the convention, are aware of violating it, and are purposely but justifiably being rude.

Now let me give a sample of the examples, specifically those under possibility 6. They are “Slapping a hysteric; opening someone else’s mail to prevent a crime.” To which our philosopher parenthetically adds, “We might note here that one especially common moral dilemma concerning rudeness arises when one has to decide whether or not to say or do something that might be criticized as an instance of failing to ‘mind your own business’; for example, telling parents that they are being overindulgent or excessively strict with
their children.”

This paragraph goes on, including references to “Dear Abby” and Randy Cohen’s “Ethicist” column in the New York Times Magazine, but this will do. Incidentally, I wonder whether slapping a hysteric qualifies as any sort of rudeness under any heading, rather than as therapy or, in extreme cases, self-defense.

Still, in the interest of fairness, I give one more example of Westacott’s thinking and style:

One obvious indicator [of snobbery] is a discrepancy between a person’s expressed opinions and her actions [note the pro-feminist, politically correct feminine pronoun] or between two sides of her behavior. I sneer at cheap tools, making a point of purchasing only professional quality, oil-quenched, chrome-vanadium wrenches made in Germany. Yet when my car needs fixing, I take it to a garage and pay others to do the work. Every morning I buy the New York Times, haughtily rejecting any substitute on the days when it is not available; yet I only ever read the sports pages. In such instances, the motive for what I do seems to be a desire to belong to, or to be seen as belonging to, or to see myself as belonging to a certain group, even though objectively my claim to membership is dubious. Here snobbery and self-deception prop each other up quite effectively.

Nevertheless, a couple of paragraphs later, Westacott does allow how

sometimes a person’s rationale for her [that feminine again!] preferences is quite plausible. Hondas are statistically more reliable than Yugos; the New York Times really does offer better coverage of international affairs than does the New York Post. Often, though, we cannot determine precisely to what extent a preference is genuine and reasonable and to what extent it is motivated by snobbery.

As you can see, the style is breezy, and even if it does not convey great novelty or profound insight, the book is pleasantly readable.

The chapter on humor, however, is genuinely satisfying. Not so much for the distinctions it draws between wholesome and sick or unsound humor as for its basing its arguments on some truly funny jokes. One wonders whether Westacott might not be more profitably engaged in compiling humor anthologies. For example: “What do you call a hundred lawyers at the bottom of the sea? A good start.” Some of the humor has the additional virtue (not derived from a vice) of laughing at oneself. So we read of a detachment that “could prove beneficial to certain subgroups, particularly that select band who make a living from teaching philosophy.”

In fact, what I like best about The Virtues of Our Vices are incidental felicities, like, “If I tell you that I believe my goldfish is a reincarnation of Winston Churchill, you will assume I’m joking. If I manage to convince you that I’m serious, you will probably conclude that I’m one slice short of a loaf.” Or the information: “According to some reports even some college professors are less pompous than in the past.”

Yet there are also infelicities, like the repeated incorrect use of “parameters” or the redundant “general consensus,” the redundant though common-enough “mutual acquaintances,” the faulty “disinterested [for uninterested] attitude,” and the solecistic singular verb in “one of the things that matters.”