- Can One Be Rude to a Shoe?Saving Our Humanity and the Wrong of Rudeness
Amy Olberding's book The Wrong of Rudeness is eye-opening and informative, while at the same time difficult to read, especially the first three chapters. To be clear, the difficulty does not lie in the prose or the concepts. The prose is accessible, examples relevant, and argument clear and cogent. My students recently made the comment that the women philosophers we read are clearer writers and provide more relatable examples than the male philosophers. These students would appreciate Olberding's book.
Nevertheless, the book is difficult for me personally because of the extreme discomfort experienced upon discovering that people in the United States actually wish death upon each other or purposely take out their frustrations on others through acts of rudeness. The latter goes beyond not paying attention, something I also witness frequently in my travels, but is a purposeful refusal to admit that one has hurt another. As painful as these examples are, they also helpfully provide me with insight as to why I find the U.S. so alienating. By way of explanation, I have spent the last twenty-odd years in Hawai'i, living for the past five years on the island of Kaua'i.1 My experiences here seem to be very different from those Olberding describes.2 [End Page 1094]
The book becomes somewhat less disconcerting upon realizing that Olberding is using what might be called an "internal argument" to craft her position. Rather than critiquing the premise—it is wrong to delight in rudeness—she accepts the premise by admitting she sometimes "delights" in being rude and then proceeds to argue that even if one accepts the premise, the conclusion remains: it is wrong to be rude. She bravely positions herself among those who contend that rudeness is a right, in some cases a birthright, by providing raw examples of her own missteps in all their ugly glory. Once she accepts the premise given by those who both embrace rudeness and are frequently rude, establishing herself as "one of them," she proceeds to demonstrate how not being rude is worth the effort as it connects us to community and saves us from a lonely future as a misanthrope. In short, she feels your pain, rude person, but she is going to struggle to be polite and so should you because being polite is important. Her project is a success largely due to her honesty and her use of Confucius and Xunzi to support her position.
The use of Confucianism to support a claim that it is wrong to be rude has impact for two reasons. The first reason has to do with situating us within world history, which provides perspective. Confucius and Xunzi did not live easy lives. As Olberding shares, the pair lived during a time of almost incessant war (670 wars over a 259-year period)3 and all the attendant atrocities that go along with war, including famine, disruption of communities, corruption, and starvation. While we admittedly live in dangerous times and, for some, times that mandate rudeness, we are nowhere near the level of constant hostility and deprivations faced by Confucius and Xunzi. As such, we should find it much easier to engage in civility.
The second reason has to do with defending Confucianism itself. Confucius and Confucianism are often critiqued for engaging in empty ritual. Similar to the critiques of Rousseau that Olberding recounted in chapter 3, "Temptations to Bad Manners," Confucianism is seen as "fakery" and promoting a herd mentality. Whether or not on purpose, she artfully positions the Confucian li 禮 as something more than knowing how many times to bow to your emperor or what fork to use. Rather, li is about acknowledging our dependency upon and vulnerability to others. The action of civility, then, is grounded both by rules and by a recognition of and commitment to what Olberding calls "Big Values."
There is little in this book that I adamantly disagree with. Many philosophers, unfortunately myself included, tend to lump the world together or assume that "we" means everyone. Western notions about our relationships with and...