Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Inappropriate Touching

Hands Across Catholic America - Should churchgoers hold hands during Mass? By Andrew Santella

Not long ago, I heard a Catholic churchgoer complaining about a wave of inappropriate touching that had spread across so many American parishes. He wasn't talking about pederast priests and the sex-abuse scandal. What he had in mind was the way many Catholics have taken to holding hands in church while they recite the Lord's Prayer...Of course, most Catholics are neither vehemently touch-feely nor vehemently traditional. I'm not a big fan of hand-holding and have even complained about it in print. To me, it smacks of enforced good cheer and saccharine singalongs. But the trouble with being against hand-holding is that it puts you in league with the church's most ultra-orthodox flat-Earthers.

Same here--though, mercifully, hand-holding hasn't gone quite this far in the Episcopal Church. Still, apart from our son's wedding last summer, I haven't been to church now for, I think 6 years.

I don't like the "horizontal dimension" in religion. I don't like the Peace, I don't like chatting in the pews before the service and I don't like running the gauntlet of ushers and greeters to get into the church.

It isn't that I'm misanthropic and it isn't that I'm afraid of germs. I am just shy: little social contacts and the protocols of friendliness stress me out. Not a lot: I've gotten used to saying hi to colleagues and minor chit chat with cashiers. But I would really rather not have it than have it: I like being private in public.

Sociability sometimes still overwelms me. I wanted to learn French--and one of the advantages of being an academic is getting to sit in on all the classes you want. But in the French II class I went to, as a pedagogical technique the instructor passed out lists of questions and had students go around to other students getting answers to the questions--a sort of scavenger hunt. I couldn't take it.

This is a really effective way to learn a language. After a summer of no French or in my case 30 years of no French, we were rusty. Then things started coming back--surprisingly. But I couldn't handle it. It might have been different if I were a traditionally-aged USD student, though even under optimal conditions I wouldn't have cared for it, but for me, as a professor, obviously older, it was just too uncomfortable. That's my quirk. I am, in this peculiar way shy. I would have stuck with it if I had to, but I didn't so I dropped the class.

What is surprising is the extent to which this kind of shyness is socially taboo--in the way that smoking or admitting that you like junk food is. It is not only shameful but, according to some, sinful. When I had a curmudgeonly letter published on Anglicans Online complaining about contemporary liturgy, the Peace and other elements of the "horizontal dimension" I was lambasted. Readers sent me emails, in some cases multiple emails condemning me as a reactionary and homophobe.

Homophobe? I suppose it's not entirely incomprehensible since social conservatives in the church have picked on liturgical revision as a symbolic issue to rally the troops. But I would bet that lots of people who had no axes to grind about same sex unions or other Red/Blue hot issues got in bed with these conservatives because they didn't like the horizontal liturgical style. After all if the guys in the pew next to me are gay, whether married in the church or not, how does it affect my church experience? What skin is it off my nose? Everything looks exactly the same.

If however I have to engage in "community" with ushers and greeters to get into the building, chit-chat with people before the service, shake hands or put up with hugs while making miserable noises about "justice, freedom and peace" that does profoundly change my church experience. Of course, ceteris paribus, I want to have enjoyable experiences and avoid stressful, unpleasant, embarrassing ones--why not?

At this point the pious, in a huff, snort "You don't go to church to get good experiences for your self" followed by a number of doctrinal claims about why one should go to church. Well, I don't buy any of them. As far as "building community" which, among the enlightened is supposed to be the purpose of church-going, if what that means facilitating little social niceties, hugging and chit-chat I can't see why this is supposed to be a religious duty. It is simply a taste that some people have and others don't have.

I suppose the idea is that friendliness is good because it spills over into altruistic behavior--that those of us who prefer using ATMs to chatting with bank tellers and find minor social interactions on the whole unpleasant are less likely to give to charity or work for social justice. But I doubt that this is so. Moreover, to the extent that friendliness and sympathy motivate altruism they seem to promote inefficient sentimentalities--sending out sympathy cards and hand-patting, taking Thanksgiving baskets to the deserving poor--rather than behavior that would be more efficient in maximizing utility, e.g. working and giving to promote the establishment of a welfare state. In any case, if what's wanted is altruistic behavior, promoting "community" is an inefficient, indirect and ineffective way to get it.

Friendliness is a taste--not a virtue much less a religious duty. And shyness isn't either a vice or a pathology but a feature of personality. I've leant how to make the appropriate noises, to act suitably in social situations, but it's something I'll never enjoy and I do not see why I should.


Anonymous said...

>> I like being private in public.<<

That piece really resonated with me. Thanks for posting it.


Some Guy with a Weblog (and a Wii) said...

Admittedly I walked away from the Catholic church 17 years ago, but up to that time, holding hands during the Lord's Prayer was quite common. It started out as mostly spouses and/or family groups holding hands, but by the time I quit attending Mass, it had turned into the whole congregation doing it.

I'm really not comfortable with that. More specifically, I'm uncomfortable with the assumption that I'd want to hold a stranger's hand. I know all the arguments employed for doing so, but no thanks.

Boofykatz said...

Excellent post. It takes me more than a glance to accept anybody into my personal space. I am not a misanthropist, I am just shy. I do not do 'touchy-feely' except with the few people I love - and often not then, to my discredit. It worries me that 'emotional intelligence' seems to imply that we have to pretend to be close to people regardless of our authentic feelings. I despise the chimpanzee smiling of tribalism and politics; perhaps we could name this Bush/Blair syndrome?

Murky Thoughts said...

My spouse is shy and I used to be shy, or at least much less outgoing in public than I am now. I think of myself as having made "progress" and not merely changed by becoming less, but I agree with you that the issue isn't exactly moral, and that largely it's practical. But I think to be shy is to be less than "real," because really we are emotional. I suspect one needs a certain amount of "real" in one's social diet, and that to be always in an active professional mode is tiring. That said, if you are deeply involved in your reality and your reality happens to be angry, best not to show it to the cashier or your dean. But that's a narcissistic and/or wounded state to be in. I think everybody has a better day if you make the leap of faith that they like you and you like them. Some people don't have mates or friends or loving families. Maybe that social transaction at the register is important to them, whether they realize it or not. Maybe it's important to you--to your world view and the brightness thereof--whether you realize it or not. All kinds of social manners can be adaptive and successful. There's not a lot of data on how happy they are.

H. E. said...

Some people don't have mates or friends or loving families. Maybe that social transaction at the register is important to them, whether they realize it or not.

And by the same token maybe that social transaction is another miserable little irritation that they have to deal with. And maybe to the cashier, it's just an additional misery about what is under the best of conditions a miserable job. The work is pure drudgery and being constantly exposed to the public and having to handle these little interactions as part of the job makes it stressful as well as boring.

There are certainly lonely people who want these little social interactions but I think the church overestimates how many there are because these are the psychologically and materially needy people that are disproportionately inclined to hang around churches. There are people we pay to deal with them--social workers, clergy and the like--so that we don't have to.

It's interesting that this piece got such a considerable response. And I suspect the reason is that it hit on a social taboo and a system of social rules that many people find oppressive.

Murky Thoughts said...

The work is pure drudgery and being constantly exposed to the public and having to handle these little interactions as part of the job makes it stressful as well as boring.

You make it seem like there's no difference between working an assembly line and working a cash register. But we have a word for the distinction: The latter is the "service industry." I guess the demise of American manufacturing means we have more people in the service industry than actually at all feel like being there. I suppose we might want to make concessions for these unfortunates, but how do we know one when we see one? I'd say your reply is more an argument to appraise each transaction individually than to certify a fixed policy as moral/reasonable/good as any other. Incidentally, I'm not a fan of religion.

Murky Thoughts said...

Most of my shopping is at places that cater to yuppies and pay better than minimum wage. Sure, some of the workers just put on a happy face because they're paid to, but I think many take these jobs because they like to interact with people--e.g. the counter people at Starbucks--and they enjoy the job less to the extent their customer is a drone.

Murky Thoughts said...

Of course, they are at your service and you are not at theirs, so one can be a drone to the extent it floats one's boat.

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