"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Meanness–A Wrong Or A Defensible Right?

Harvey Potter used to pull the wings off of fireflies, attach toads to his Lionel train transformer and watch them stiffen and squirm, crush birds eggs in their nests, and set traps for neighborhood cats.

“He’s a mean little boy”, said Mrs. Helander voicing the opinion of everyone on the block.

Harvey’s father always came to his defense.  He was simply a curious, highly intelligent boy who liked to experiment.  Animal circuitry, for example, demonstrated by electric current running through the nervous system of an amphibian.  Care-taking behavior in birds was tested by leaving one robin’s egg in a nest of three crushed.  Ridding the neighborhood of nuisance cats that tipped over garbage cans at 3am and howled and screeched at all hours of the night was a community service, not an act of meanness.

Harvey was somewhere in between Mrs. Helander’s accusation and his father’s defense.  He was interested in learning whether or not, as he had heard, that once a human scent had been left in a live bird’s nest, the mother bird never returned; but he also liked to smear the gooey yellow yoke all over the twigs in the cup of the nest.  He did like the Davy Crockett part of setting traps in the back yard, but he had to admit he hated cats and that he was indifferent to their suffering.  As for the frogs, his only thought was of hooking small mammals up to the transformer or better yet borrowing Herbie Swanson’s small-motor generator to see what a real jolt of juice would do to a squirrel.

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Harvey’s mother thought that once he got older and left his childish experiments and pranks behind, he would become more ‘normal’.  Martha Potter hated to use that word to describe her son because it was a defensive term, suggesting that Harvey might have an abnormal side; but it was the only way she could hope for a less contentious adolescence.

Harvey’s talent – perverse as some called it – was making girls cry.  He had an uncanny knack of sensing their vulnerabilities and going after them.  Zits, bad hair, overweight, piano legs, cross-eyes, and thick glasses were all fair game.  In addition to picking up on insecurity and fear, he was practiced at delivering the blow.  He knew exactly when a girl had come out of the toilette, just having fixed her hair and put on a little rouge; and knew that she was at her most vulnerable.  No girl he knew could dismiss a remark about frantic curls or pitted complexion after she had spent twenty minutes in the bathroom addressing both.

He was able to act with impunity because in addition to his brains and perverse talent, he had a thick skin.  He knew that he was no beauty, could do nothing to shorten his long nose, push his wide-set eyes closer together, or jut his receding chin forward.  His unattractiveness gave him the armor he needed to indulge his meanness.  Yes, meanness, for that was exactly what it seemed to be.  No parent, teacher, or older classmate could find any other reason for his unexpectedly cruel remarks.
“He’s just honest”, said his father who was always Harvey’s staunchest supporter.  “Those girls he goes to school with are dogs; and they better realize it before they get any older.”

Jacko Potter also defended bullies as necessary stand-ins for the abusive, arrogant, and ambitious adults all children were soon to encounter.  If schools insisted on neutering bullies, then graduating students would enter the adult world ill-equipped to navigate its rough waters.  “Bullies are good for character”, Jacko said.

As Harvey grew older, he became less promiscuous in his meanness.  The fun of making girls cry and deflating boys’ egos so flat that they had little sexual confidence for months, no longer held much interest.  Meanness, he understood, could be a very effective tool for succeeding in the marketplace.  No matter how old people were, they always had an exaggerated sense of their looks, their intelligence, or their social savvy.  Puncturing an inflated ego would be as easy at 40 as at 14.

“There are two things you need to have in the workplace to succeed”, Harvey’s father told him. “Charm and a silver tongue.  Everyone, bar none, loves flattery; and the man who knows how to deliver it, will rise to the top.”

The obverse was also true, said his father. “The well-timed zinger can put any prick in his place.”

Since Harvey was well-practiced in the art of humiliation, he only needed to learn more about charm and a way with words.  Once he understood the concept of the obverse, he caught on quickly.  The cruel zinger was no different from the insincere compliment; both were delivered with good timing, temperate but unmistakable phrasing, and the right choice of words.

A woman who was concerned about her complexion could always be cajoled with kind words about peaches and cream coloring; and one who was clearly overweight would always respond to complimentary remarks about the elegant line of her dress, or her remarkable stature and presence.   In other words, just as he used to send girls off whimpering into the schoolyard, he could gain female admirers and friends simply by telling them lies.

One of Harvey’s colleagues was a master of insinuation, rumor, and innuendo.  She was brilliant at derogating office enemies, undermining their position, suggesting incompetence and irregularity, and watching their unceremonious firing without ever having to be honest, frank, or blunt.

“I left him swinging in the breeze”, she said, “and as he dropped and in the minutes before his neck was snapped, he never had a clue who opened the trapdoor to the scaffold.”
“A woman after my own heart”, Harvey said.  The more subtle the parry and thrust  the better.  Plunge the dirk in deep and pull it out before your enemy knows what hit him.

So, was Harvey Potter ever really mean?  Or did he simply learn the ways of the world more quickly and easily than most?  Identifying weakness and vulnerability whether in a theatre of war, in cabinets of diplomacy, in the bedroom, or in the open market has always been part of human intelligence.  Exploiting this weakness to one’s own advantage has been the key to victory and success since the very first human settlement.  Harvey only was better at it than his competitors. 

For those who avoided hurting others at all cost, Harvey’s actions were considered mean.  Tennessee Williams famously wrote that meanness was the only unconscionable and unpardonable act in life; and the faint-hearted often quote him to justify their reserve and misplaced generosity.

For the rest of us, Harvey was a winner.  A canny observer of human nature and a savvy manipulator of it, he had the intelligence to devise a strategy for victory and success and the will to carry it out.   A Nietzschean through and through and a modern day hero.

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