1. The customer’s complaint in his angry phone call to our store manager was very specific. It was also true. An associate at the Big Box, he said, had used profanity.
One could argue that usage of profanity in question (“Walk away, sir. Walk. The. @%#$. Away.“) would fall under the FCC’s “Bono rule” — fleeting and employed merely as an abstract intensifier devoid of prurient intent. One could also note that the language resorted to by our associate was nowhere near as harsh or as crude as the language routinely used by police officers in their dealings with law-abiding citizens. But none of that matters here. This is retail, and retail workers are expected and required to hold to far higher standards than mere broadcasters or police officers. In retail, the use of profanity near or toward customers is strictly forbidden. Regardless of the circumstances, it’s simply not acceptable behavior. Our associate did and should know better.
So this was a very serious incident requiring a serious response from the leadership at our store. As a lower-tier member of that store leadership, I helped to ensure that this response was promptly delivered. This meant documentation — a note in the associate’s employment record, a disciplinary discussion with him regarding the gravity of the violation, and coaching on ways to ensure that the violation would not be repeated along with a blunt warning as to the more severe consequences should that happen.
I’ve been involved in several such disciplinary meetings at the store and they are never pleasant. This one was particularly unpleasant for me, however, for a reason you’ll likely glean here without my needing to state it directly.
2. One mitigating factor in this incident was that this was a first offense for the associate involved but not a first offense for the customer, a fellow who has previously and sometimes belligerently violated our store’s face-mask requirement during this pandemic. Our associates are permitted and encouraged to avoid customers like this one who refuse to comply with that face-mask requirement or with basic social distancing.
The store requires masks and social distancing in the same way that it prohibits shoplifting. High-visibility signs are posted in multiple locations in the store clearly explaining both policies in unambiguous terms. We have physical barriers in place throughout the store designed to discourage and prevent both shoplifting and violations of social distancing. At the same time, however, associates are not required — or permitted — to attempt to enforce those policies through confrontation.
This No Confrontation policy is prudent, both morally and financially. It is meant to keep our associates and customers out of danger and thus also to keep the company out of liability. In the case of suspected shoplifters, we are instructed, trained, and encouraged to avoid accusation and to respond only by offering extravagantly attentive customer service. In the case of aggressive anti-maskers, we are permitted to offer free face-masks to any customer lacking them, but not to attempt to prevent them from entering the store or to have them removed from it. We are permitted, trained, and encouraged to walk away from un-masked customers, but we are not permitted to confront them or to instruct them to walk away. (And certainly not to instruct them to walk. the. eff. away.)
Avoiding confrontation with shoplifters is relatively easy because, after all, they tend to be keenly intent on avoiding confrontation with us. Anti-maskers are different. They tend to be looking for a fight. I’ve encountered a handful of mask-less customers who mainly came to the store to make a purchase and, in those few cases, I’ve been able to help them very quickly locate what they need so they can get on their way. But those cases seem to be rare outliers. Most of the mask-refusing customers we’ve had seem only incidentally interested in making a purchase. They seem, rather, to be wandering the aisles hoping for confrontation with associates or with other customers to provide them the opportunity to sound off.
The fact that such people are seeking confrontation makes our No Confrontation policy more difficult to implement, but it also obviously makes it more vitally necessary to follow. These people are literally dangerous. They are volatile and unpredictable, so its even more important to scrupulously avoid anything that might further set them off.
3. The Queen’s Guard at Buckingham Palace are famous for their bright red coats and bear-skin hats. They’re also famous for their dutiful refusal to move while standing at attention on duty. Tourists will say the most outrageous, ridiculous, obscene, or offensive things trying to get the footmen of the Queen’s Guard to react in any way, to produce some slight twitch or crack in their stolid stoicism, but it’s nearly impossible to provoke them into any visible response.
I’d never make it in the Queen’s Guard. At some point, I’m pretty sure I’d crack up laughing at someone’s outrageous joke. If somebody truly funny went to work on me, I’d probably maintain the straight-faced seriousness they’re required to show about as well as Harvey Korman did when Tim Conway went after him on the old Carol Burnett Show.
But that wouldn’t be my only problem. There are at least two other reasons I’d be bad at that job. One of those has to do with a way I’m trying to be a better person and the other has to do with a way I’m failing to be one.
The former has to do with high-minded ideals like integrity and justice and love of neighbor. Yeah, really. I really am so moralistically self-important that I think about my own actions in such grandly lofty terms while at the same time struggling to make it something other than mere self-importance — to remember that these ideals are more important than me. And so I’ve got this notion I’ve gleaned from things like that famous Edmund Burke quote about the triumph of evil coming from good people doing nothing or like that Jason Isbell line about “wishing I’d never been one of the guys / who pretended not to hear another white man’s joke.” What that means for me is a commitment, or at least an intention, never to be passive when I’m in that situation that every one of us — especially those of us who are white, male, straight, Christian, abled, non-poor — will sometimes find ourselves in, the situation in which we’re alone with others who are like us and who therefore feel comfortable and entitled to bear false witness against those who are not like us, to punch down at them with our expected assent and approval.
Specifically, I’ve tried to make it a rule for myself never to allow that kind of false witness to go unchallenged, to ensure that I’m never tacitly or passively reinforcing it, that I am actively denying it the approval and assent it seeks from me. By definition, there’s nobody else around to hold me to this rule — nobody else to judge whether I’m living up to it and whether it survives as a genuine principle or a mere pretense in my life. There’s nobody but me to hold me to it, and that seems to make it more important that I hold myself to it. That makes it a matter of integrity and thus also a matter of identity. And that means that it can all too easily get tangled up, again, with matters of self-regard and pride that can warp it into something else. You know, your basic Murder-in-the-Cathedral-style ambiguity over the murky lines between virtue and prideful motive, yada yada. If being good was easy, then we’d all do it all the time.
Which brings us to the not-so commendable reason I’d probably get fired from the Queen’s Guard, which is unambiguously a matter of pride unencumbered by anything virtuous. At some point I’d be standing there on duty, smartly attired in my crisp red tunic and ridiculous fuzzy hat, and some obnoxious idiot would try to engage me in what he was treating as an argument. I’d stand there, unmoving, duty-bound to say nothing because I’m on the clock at work and that’s my job, and I’d probably be able to endure a good bit of That Guy sounding off, convincing himself that his absurd and baseless assertions and his vile ethnic and sexual slurs were so dazzling that I was incapable of offering any response. But eventually it would reach a crescendo in which this doofus would turn to high-five his equally awful and dimwitted friend, congratulating one another over how he had presented the case for his hateful nonsense so masterfully and intelligently that he had rendered me speechless. And at that point I’d probably lose it and say something.
And, sure, I’d try to rationalize that or to console myself by noting that we’re all also always duty-bound to defend the truth, to deny and denounce hateful slurs and slanders, etc., etc. And that might all be true, but I couldn’t honestly say that it all would outweigh the fact that I also just wouldn’t be able to abide letting that idiot think he’d beat me. I’d be defending my own pride as much as — maybe more than — I was defending truth or justice or those neighbors that jackwagon was defaming.
Acknowledging that is unpleasant, but I’ve recently seen this to be true of myself. I learned yesterday that I can be very good at evading and dismissing the trolling taunts of someone desperately trying to engage me in their folly. But I was also disappointed to learn that as soon as I allow myself to acknowledge that — to think “Ha! This guy keeps trying to bait me, but no luck, buddy, I’m not taking the bait!” — I’m capable of letting my guard down and, well, taking the bait.
And while I’m confessing to unflattering motives I should probably also concede that I was also, frankly, scared. I don’t know what I would do if I were a Queen’s Guard stationed outside of Buckingham Palace and some unmasked fellow came up to spew his aerosolized bigotry three feet from my face. In that situation I wouldn’t be permitted to move and so I wouldn’t be allowed to keep retreating and side-stepping in an effort to maintain a safe distance like I did yesterday. The desire to keep a safe distance from a shouty unmasked person in the midst of a spiking pandemic is a perfectly reasonable fear. But it’s still fear and, therefore, something that makes it more difficult to be otherwise perfectly reasonable.
4. The anti-mask covid-denialist customer who registered his complaint about our associate’s inappropriate use of profanity complained about only that. He said the associate was rude and used coarse language and, again, this is accurate. That associated did, eventually, become rude and ultimately resorted to dropping an f-bomb, all of which is unacceptable in the workplace.
But it’s also notable that the customer in question did not make either of those complaints or accusations to the associate himself. He accused that associate of many things, all of which would seem to be far more serious complaints that a lack of manners or the use of R-rated language. He accused the associate of being a “dupe” and a “puppet” of some nefarious globalist conspiracy, of being a traitor who hated America and despised the Constitution. He made the latter two accusations more than once. He claimed to believe that all of this was true of our associate.
It seems odd to me that someone who believed an employee of ours to be guilty of such high crimes wouldn’t mention any of that when calling to complain about the service provided by that associate. If I genuinely believed that someone working, say, at the hoagie counter of my local Wawa was part of a treasonous conspiracy to overthrow the Constitution, I would probably mention that in any conversation with their manager. I’d probably lead with that, in fact, since it would also seem to overshadow any far less significant concerns about the employee’s general manners or lack thereof. To do otherwise, it seems to me, would suggest that I did not genuinely believe that worker to be guilty of any of the nefarious things I was accusing them of — that the entire pretext of my confrontation with them over their supposed treasonous contempt for the Constitution had been a kind of LARP or fantasy role-playing exercise that I myself, on some level, recognized to be an absurd and unbelievable pretense.
I suppose if one were a particularly feverish true believer in conspiracism one might choose to focus exclusively on the unrelated matter of the worker’s use of profanity — rather than the vastly more important crime of being a jackbooted thug enforcing the One-World Government’s tyranny through face-masks and the universal franchise — because if one were so far gone as to truly believe any of that, one would also likely believe that the store’s managers were also “in on it.”
Might that describe our unneighborly neighbor yesterday at the store? And, if so, might that make him an example of something I have previously argued does not actually exist, namely, a sincere “true believer” in the stew of covid-denial/Q-Anon/Kraken conspiracism?
I don’t think so, because this man’s literally and figuratively un-masked remarks all seemed directed to gauge whether or not his fellow middle-aged white male was “in on it.” I mean this in the actual sense of “in on it,” rather than the conspiratorial meaning employed by conspiracists. When conspiracists accuse someone of being “in on it,” what they actually mean is that person is, disappointingly, not “in on it” — that they have not accepted the bounds and the rules of the game they know themselves to be playing. (This is true of conspiracism and of just plain racism too.)
He began by dropping hints and suggestions, which he clearly intended to serve as a kind of sentinel’s demand for the password. Faced with initially cheerful and polite evasions, he moved from what I think he imagined was subtle allusion toward language that even he recognized as explicit. He was seeking, and then aggressively demanding, agreement and approval. When that agreement and approval were withheld, he escalated to accusations, by means of which he ultimately succeeded in getting our associate to feed the troll by actively denying that approval.
And that, more than the associate’s loss of circumspection, was what the poor man seemed to find intolerable. Refraining from agreement and approval was upsetting to him because it spoiled the fun of the game, but actively refusing to provide those was unbearable for him because it also denied him access to what he was seeking even more than those things. He wasn’t just seeking agreement and approval. He was seeking absolution. And our cornered associate lacked either the authority or the inclination to provide that.
That’s got me thinking quite a bit about the relationship between confession and absolution, but I’ve already gone on far too long in this post and that discussion is probably better left to some wholly separate post unrelated to this specific context and therefore not requiring any of the delicate elliptical tip-toeing about I’ve had to do here to avoid getting into any further trouble at work. OK, then.