A Short Story from the September 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard
It sometimes seems to me that most of my life has been spent in conflict with other human beings, and I have recently come to the conclusion that this is not a desirable situation, in fact it can be acutely uncomfortable and so lonely that I once forswore the battle and went around for at least a month wearing a beatific smile on my face and dodging anything I perceived to be potentially controversial. Eventually of course I came to my senses and relapsed into being the argumentative, intolerant woman I really am.
I don’t think it’s genetic. It first happened when I discovered that there was something very wrong with the world. I think the seeds were sown early when my father talked about politics, but there was a time too, when at school I realised that some adults were so stupid that I was tempted to spend as much time as possible disagreeing with what they said. It all began when our class was asked to write an essay called “My likes and dislikes”. My essay was contentious enough but there was a girl in my class called Dorcas (her real name and how could anyone forget a name like that?) who wrote that she disliked lessons at school in general and nearly all the teachers, though fortunately for her she didn’t name names. My essay was read aloud to the class and the listeners either sneered or smiled indulgently but when Dorcas’s essay was read (as an example of how not to write) I was overcome with admiration for her. A mouselike girl, she sat at the back of the class and I had seldom given her a moment’s thought but when I heard her essay I glanced at her and noticed she wore a halo round her head. She was so forceful in what she had to say that I reeled under the power of it, as did the teachers only for different reasons. Poor Dorcas, she was castigated. Oh, so she didn’t like school, they said. So who did she think she was daring to undermine the work of so many good people who strove each day to knock some sense into her thick head? So this was gratitude-people were endeavouring to educate her and yet she had the nerve to say she didn’t like them, didn’t like school. What impertinence. And so on . . . Dorcas who had appeared to be relatively serene while her essay was being read went suddenly white and squirmed, then slumped back in her seat looking utterly dejected. My contempt for adults in general began thus. They didn’t want the truth. They preferred sycophantic little toads.
From that day my conviction grew that people, on the whole, do prefer other people to be nice and agreeable. It makes life so much easier when there is no confrontation. This way we can withdraw into our own little world of safety, secure in the knowledge that we are right. We must be, no-one else disagrees with us. I sometimes think that the biggest compliment we can pay another person is to tell them what we think of as the truth. As long as we don’t overdo it. We all know that truth is not necessarily objective, but there comes a time when to say to someone that “No, I do not share your adoration of the Royal Family”, or “Yes, I am aware of what the suffragettes did for me but I don’t want the vote, thank you”, is recognising that they are worthy of your honesty, and, if it makes them unhappy then you were also made unhappy in the first place listening to their crap beliefs.
Being a socialist always means seeing things from a different perspective, and it also means, if we are forthright, that we must at some time or other upset other people. My family are always telling me that confrontation is often pointless, but while agreeing with them one day, I’m off the next day confronting somebody else.
So I don’t find it at all easy to be nice, and, anyway, when was life ever easy for socialists? We see a world organised in such a way that it offends us and we seek to change it. In the process we challenge other people and so they feel like the teachers who hated Dorcas’s truth. I think of Dorcas from time to time and hope she didn’t draw her head back into her shell after the verbal whacking she got from the fearers of truth. I hope she’s still out there somewhere trying to tell the truth, and I hope it isn’t as painful for here as it sometimes is for me. What about you?