If you back down from loudmouths it just encourages them.
Last night I saw guy wearing a “Make America Great Again” tee-shirt at the Y. He was about 35, wore a Navy cap, and was walking with his young son who wore a karate uniform. He was a large man and muscular. I quietly told him I found his tee-shirt offensive. He raised his voice and followed me into the locker room.
Him: “I’ll tell you what’s offensive, the president we have now.”
Me: “Are you for real?”
We get inside and my locker is close to his. He stands close to me and flexes his muscles, trying to scare me. I haven’t fought since 9th grade. I know I can’t win but I knew it might come to this when I provoked him in the first place.
I look him in the eye and laugh. I say in my most pleasant voice, “We can get as serious as you want to get. I don’t know what you think you’ll get out of fighting a 64 year-old man, but we can go for it.” I can tell by now that he’s getting more upset the more I laugh, so I make it a point to smile as I say it. I try to be cool, but I don’t take my eyes off his hands. I’m willing to risk getting my face smashed in, but it’s not my preferred option.
Him: “I’m not threatening you. I’m protecting my son.”
I laugh at him again. “What exactly are you protecting him from?”
Him: “From the ideas of liberal trash like you.”
Me: “You can’t be for real.” I laugh some more and walk out.
He starts yelling. “Yeah, that’s right. You walk away, old man. Go ahead. Walk away.”
I waggle my fingers at him as I leave. I expect him to follow me, but he doesn’t. Of course I rat him out to the front desk. They heard him yelling so they already know about it. I doubt they’ll do anything, of course. Maybe I’ll get thrown out. Que sera.
Intellectually, I get that there are a bunch of people who are really really angry. The world is changing and they sense correctly that any change is unlikely to be good for people like them. I’m sure this guy feels besieged by change. Black people and women have zoomed past him on the social ladder. He may not have grandchildren because that kid in the karate uniform may turn out to be gay and move to the city. There are so many of them these days. He thinks I should be deferential because he “served.” I think he should be grateful that a modern economy could find anything at all for him to do, even be a target. Oxford says that in the next two decades as many as 47% of US jobs could just go away, and this man’s job may well be one of those. We don’t need ditch diggers now that we have machines. Meanwhile liberal trash like me laugh at him and get paid 30 times what he does to do jobs that he can’t even understand.
So he wants to put up walls, buy guns, and physically stand between his son and “ideas.” He’s trapped and desperate and he’ll do anything to stop the change from coming. Trying to argue or even talk to him is useless because he lacks the self-awareness to understand his anger, and if he had understood it, the cognition to process and articulate it. All he can do is stand is a smelly locker room in front of his confused son and try to swat away ideas like flies.
But even though I know that intellectually, I continue to be amazed at how incredibly angry they are and how many of those angry people there are. For the very first time in my life, I’m genuinely worried about the future. I suspect we’re on the way to splitting into two countries, which Lincoln should’ve let happen in the first place. The trick will be to live in the good one, I suppose.
It was childish on my part to mess with him, like torturing a possum. He can’t help that he is what he is. But then again, I grew up in the projects in Waycross, Georgia. I can’t help what I am either, and I learned a long time ago that if you back down from loudmouths it just encourages them.
There was a time when lines were drawn by the language you spoke, or whether you sat down to pee, or the color of your skin, or who you slept with, or where you lived. Today, it’s drawn by what you believe.