Bring Back the Salons

Salon culture
Today if someone mentions a “salon” you probably think about a haircut or manicure. But in the 18th century, prior to the French Revolution, salons were the focus of civil debate, intellectual curiosity, and culture. They were  centres of discussion on everything from manners to literature to philosophy to science. And they were run by women. Salons were the bright stars of the Enlightenment; cauldrons of intellectual, cultural, and social development.

More than ever, we need a salon culture today. Social media is driving us to ignorance, stupidity, rigidly polarized views, and a culture of confrontation and abuse.

Guests to salons were invited to attend by the salonnières who ran them, and meetings were held in the host’s home, often in her bedroom. Should a guest engage too loudly, exhibit bad manners while there, express themselves too foolishly or show ignorance of the topics under discussion, they were not invited back. And in a highly social society like 18th-century France, to be exiled from participation was a humiliating loss of face. To be well-regarded, one needed to be an active and engaging participant in the salon culture: you gained more points for being amusing, witty, well-read, well-spoken, and polite.

Participants weren’t selected simply for their charm or wit: hosts wanted challenge, lively discussion, and even controversy. They chose people who could offer contrast; those who could speak to opposing views and raise difficult questions for proponents to wrestle with. Salons were even places for musicians, composers, painters, and poets to show off their work and have them critiqued by the guests.

Salons were egalitarian: men and women both participated and engaged in the discussions, breaking away from the male-dominated society of the time, and providing both an informal education for women and an opportunity for them to develop their own views. Women could engage in political discussion in salons while they were barred from them outside. But they also allowed the aristocracy and the bourgeoise to mix and mingle; to engage in ways they could not do outside the salon, breaking down the social barriers.

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Manners? Civility? What happened to them?

Robert CrumbI was sitting in my car on main street, recently, waiting for a break in the traffic so I could back out and drive on. My backup lights were lit, my turn signal flashing, so drivers knew I was trying to exit. The parking downtown is nose-first, angled to the sidewalk, so you need to back into the oncoming traffic lane to leave. All I needed was a single driver to stop and allow me out. A few seconds of someone’s time. But even though the traffic light stopped the cars, drivers still came up right behind me to block my exit. Where, I wondered, had people’s manners gone, how had people become so uncivil that they could not even commit a simple act of courtesy?

In his book, Walden, in fact in the very first chapter, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” I would offer that today — at least based on the noisome detritus posted on social media — this is more like “lives of loud, rude selfishness and self-inflicted ignorance.” Thoreau never had the opportunity to spend an hour observing people in a grocery store or big box outlet during a pandemic, or during a Black Friday sale, but if he had I suspect his view would be closer to mine.*

Pandemic rules like wearing a mask, social distancing, one-way aisles, and using hand sanitizer serve two functions:  the first and most obvious is to reduce the opportunities to spread the coronavirus, but the second is an ethical test: are you or your fellow humans even aware of or give a shit about others, or just think about yourself? If you do consider the welfare of others as equally important to your own, and you obey the rules, then you at least have some manners.

Some of these rules or policies had to be passed into law, rather than being left as a preferred code of behaviour. Leaving it up to individuals to behave maturely and responsibly, with consideration to others during a pandemic, and expecting people to exhibit a basic understanding of simple hygiene and health failed miserably early on: far too many people quickly proved too selfish, or too stupid, or both to care about others. The utter failure of many adults to act in a mature, civilized, responsible, and non-selfish manner was made evident in the anti-mask demonstrations. Rudeness and selfishness came to the fore too often to leave it up to individuals.

We have laws against littering, jaywalking, parking on sidewalks, defecating and urinating in public, disobeying traffic lights, letting your lawn grow too high, letting your dog run loose, driving while drunk, smoking in public places. All sorts of laws to maintain social order have been passed to enforce what should be automatic, considerate, responsible behaviour (aka manners). But clearly we are not collectively mature or responsible enough for manners alone; to remain even passably civilized, laws are necessary. ***

Manners are a moral imperative, even a virtue. They measure whether people can behave well towards one another without any incentive or motivation to do so. Laws are what we get when we can’t, but manners are equally important as a sign of our ability to govern ourselves as a democracy. Behaving well, behaving mannerly, may not be profitable, but it’s a powerful motivator for anyone not obsessed with mere glitter and material goods. As Edmund Burke wrote in 1796, in his Letters on a Regicide,

Manners are of more importance than laws. Upon them, in a great measure, the laws depend. The law touches us but here and there, and now and then. Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, but a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe in. They give their whole form and color to our lives. According to their quality, they aid morals, they supply them, or they totally destroy them.

That’s worth repeating: manners are more important than laws. Why? Because they are self-administered and thus show us for who we are, not who others determine we must be. Manners take our measure. In her book, Why Manners Matter (Random House Australia, 2007)**, Lucinda Holdforth explained:

Destroy manners — sweep aside all of a society’s habits, conventions, and patterns of behaviour — and you may well find you have nothing left but chaos. And because human beings cannot live for long in a state of anarchy, sooner or later some form of oppressive authority will step in to restore order on new, more punitive premises.

Which is clearly what is happening in the USA today. President Trump (aka Putin’s Puppet) has behaved abysmally, lacking manners in and out of office: he has insulted, lied, cheated, stolen, squandered taxpayers’ money, given his unqualified children and campaign contributors positions of power, and then bragged about his mannerless and petty behaviour. And he has encouraged his followers to behave similarly: without manners or civility or consideration for others (which they have done). He has done so in order to be able to implement a more repressive state to manage the very chaos he himself created. It’s a subtle, but effective coup.

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The new normal

Hindenburg burning“Oh, the humanity,” cried Herbert Morrison, as he watched in horror as the giant airship, the Hindenburg, burst into flames at its mooring. The year was 1937, and Morrison’s words still echo down the decades. As the disaster unfolded in front of him, Morrison exclaimed, “…it’s falling, it’s crashing! Watch it, watch it, folks! Get out of the way, get out of the way! … Oh, the humanity… This is the worst thing I’ve ever witnessed.”

Eighty-three years later, uttering those words of anguish and disbelief wouldn’t be out of place in an eyewitness account of the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis. They’d be particularly apt when standing in front of a Talibangelist megachurch packed with worshippers while the sane world is in lockdown. Or commenting on the armed proto-fascists protesting lockdown in states that Donald Trump wants to win next November. Or the crowds of self-absorbed and immature people in Florida and California breaking social-distancing rules to demand state governments open beaches so they can party.

In the aftermath of the Hindenburg, travel by airship virtually ceased and the industry died. Air travel never returned to a pre-Hindenburg “normal.”

But as COVID-19 spreads and continues to wreak havoc on communities, businesses, and economies, many of our leaders and indeed citizens believe that it will simply pass, after which we will return to a pre-coronavirus “normal.” Things, they tell us, will go back to the way they were and we will continue on as we did before the pandemic. Things will be “normal” again.

Not only will that not happen, it should not. Normal is what got us into the mess. Normal caused the problems and if we go backward, we will only repeat them in the very near future.

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Dandelions and civilization

Whenever I see a lawn with dandelions, I think, “This is the home of civilized people. This is the home of people who care about the environment and their community. This is where bees are welcome.”

When I see a monoculture lawn, bereft of weeds or dandelions, I think, “Here is the home of an anti-social family; a place where life is restricted, wildlife discouraged; where community and the environment don’t matter.”

I feel the same when I see a lawn sign advertising that an anti-“weed” toxin has been applied: “Here is the house of someone who dislikes their neighbours, the local wildlife, and pets.” It’s the home of someone who doesn’t care about their and their neighbours’ drinking water, either, because everyone knows that those poisons drain off into our local water supplies and eventually poison everyone.

Bland lawns bereft of texture and colour, bereft of even a single dandelion just seem so artificial, so hostile, so arrogant. So anti-bee, so anti-life, so impoverished.

Dandelions, on the other hand, are a bright icon of civilization and conscience. After all, who doesn’t know that bees and other pollinators are in trouble, are suffering from the excesses of toxins sprayed egregiously on lawns and fields? Who really believes a drab, one-colour lawn is more attractive, let alone beneficial than a flower garden?

Dandelions have a long, storied history in human company: brought over from Europe in the 17th century for their healing properties, they have spread across the continent. 

Weeds get a bad rap, says Dan Kraus, national conservation biologist at the Nature Conservancy of Canada:

Weed is a very subjective term. There is no scientific definition that says: this is a weed, this is not a weed. They’re basically plants that are in a place where people don’t want them. People consider dandelions to be a weed, but if you just change your mind about dandelions, and you don’t mind them on your lawn, then they’re no longer a weed.

Just google lawns and weeds and up pop a horde of commercial sites offering to cleanse your lawn of weeds, mostly by spraying some toxic concoction on them that will also poison wildlife and your drinking water. And they do it for money, of course.  But that’s modern life and the culture of me-me-me: as long as your lawn is perfect, who cares the consequences?

Lawns have a long history, mostly as status symbols rather than anything useful. The word itself comes to us from the Old Enligh launde, meaning a communal grazing space. It devolved into laune by 1540. Back in Henry III ‘s time it meant a private area exquisitely and laboriously manicured (first by livestock, then by peasants’ hands, and later by paid workers) to show off your wealth and status. Nothing communal about them.

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Hegseth, hand washing and social media

Fox News host Pete Hegseth has said on air that he has not washed his hands for 10 years because “germs are not a real thing”.

That’s the headline you read on dozens of media sites and shared throughout social media (this one from BBC News). Instant reactions (mine included) were “ewwww…” followed by negative comments on Fox News in general. But when you stop to think about it, could it be true? Can someone actually go a decade without washing his hands?

No. Surely he bathes or showers regularly. One can’t believe a TV show host would be so unhygienic. His co-hosts would surely comment. Maybe he’s not as observant of the niceties of personal hygiene as others, but a whole decade?

And face it, it’s difficult to believe that even a Fox News host is so stupid as to not believe in germs. Alex Jones, and maybe the other fringe wingnuts like anti-vaxxers and flat-earthers could believe such piffle, but surely not a mainstream media host with a university education. Could he? OMG!!!! the tweets erupted.

Predictably, social media lit up like a pinball machine over this comment. So Hegseth tried to explain:

Mr Hegseth later told USA Today that his remarks were intended to be a joke.
“We live in a society where people walk around with bottles of Purell (a hand sanitiser) in their pockets, and they sanitise 19,000 times a day as if that’s going to save their life,” he said.
“I take care of myself and all that, but I don’t obsess over everything all the time.”
Of the public reaction, he said it was ridiculous how people took things so “literally and seriously” so that their “heads explode”.

He’s right. We react and often over-react. We are knee-jerk trained. Social media has made us into Pavlovian emotional hair-triggers. I am sometimes guilty of it, too, because I am as susceptible to confirmation bias as everyone else. No matter how hard I try to use reason, sometimes those eager little response hormones kick in first. Having our beliefs confirmed is comforting and reinforces them.

But Hegseth’s joke, if indeed it was one, didn’t get everyone laughing. It was a joke without a punchline. A lot of people believed it was true. And others found fault his later explanation, as noted in The Guardian:

On Twitter on Monday, Hegseth gave mixed messages. He claimed he had been joking and paraphrased the president in blaming the media for being so “self-righteous and angry”. He also said he supported drinking from hosepipes and riding bikes without a helmet…

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Idiot lights: aka fog lights

idiot lights
Have you noticed how many people drive with their idiot lights on all the time? These are supposed to be “fog” lights, but idiots drive with them day and night, good and bad weather. Hence the name: idiot lights.*

Not that they’re illegal (they should be…): the Ontario Highway Traffic Act allows a minimum of two and up to four headlights on the front of the vehicle, so they slip in under that provision. But fog lights are not meant to be used as headlights for daytime or clear driving at night: they’re meant for specific visibility conditions. Not for regular driving. The Act obviously doesn’t say anything about blinding other drivers, being inconsiderate of just an asshole, however.**

The term ‘Idiot lights’ refers to the extra set of headlights placed either between or below the main set (not the daytime running lights, which are low-intensity and separate). They were also known as auxiliary lights or even ‘driving lights.’ Once sold as add-on accessories, they have become standard on most pickup trucks and SUVs, and are increasingly common on everyday sedans.

These used to be called “fog lights“ but that term seems to have fallen out of favour because bad drivers use them in any weather and never turn them off. We call them idiot lights today for one, or both, reasons:

  1. They cannot be turned off (so the owner is an idiot for buying a vehicle with such a limited feature).
  2. They won’t be turned off even in good weather (so the driver is an idiot for annoying oncoming drivers and pedestrians).***

Idiot lights are often promoted as nighttime or bad weather vision enhancers. Well, that might be true, but only if they pointed down towards the road. Most seem to point out and often up, like the regular headlights. Which is right into the eyes of oncoming drivers – four headlights in your eyes instead of two. Plus they add glare on wet pavement that makes it harder to identify lanes and road markings.

Wheels.ca says of these lights and the drivers who use them:

Many motorists drive with their fog lights on at night even though there isn’t a slight hint of fog anywhere to be found. Fog lights are designed to be used when the fog is so dense the headlights reflect back off the water droplets and make vision difficult. Fog lights are mounted low to cut under the fog and light up the road surface under the mist. Driving with fog lights on during clear nights does two things. One, it blinds oncoming drivers which is very dangerous and, two, it shows everyone else you don’t understand fog lights and probably think yourself quite sporty.

Their sole purpose, in an age of increasingly uncivility, is to annoy oncoming drivers and reduce their vision. And it works. You used to have to turn on your high beams to get this effect, now you can buy a vehicle with annoyance built right in. And as an added bonus for the truly ignorant, you can annoy other drivers with both your high beams and your idiot lights in tandem. The real sociopath also replaces standard bulbs with high-intensity bulbs (HIDs) to double or triple the blinding effect!
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