Arguing With Barbers
"You ever tried to argue with a barber?"
"I never argue," Jacobs said.
"That's because you don't know this kind of ignorance," Rayber explained. "You've never experienced it."
Jacobs snorted. "Oh yes I have."
"I never argue."
"But you know you're right," Rayber persisted.
"I never argue."
From "The Barber" by Flannery O'Conner
I have no idea why I'm nearly 47 years old and am just now discovering the writing of Flannery O'Conner.
It started with my son finding a first gen Kindle reader at a yard sale for $10 bucks and I've found this to be the best e-reader experience I've ever had. I'm not a fan of reading on my phone, I hate reading a lot of text on my computer, and I don't have an iPad (yet...). In any case, I've been doing a fair amount of reading on this thing. In the process, I've found a lot of free stuff available, including the works of Flannery O'Conner.
I began at the beginning and am incredibly taken by her stories, mostly because of the characters she creates. As I read, I feel I am experiencing the life of the deep south in the 1940's.
One story in particular, entitled "The Barber," has consumed a lot of my thinking the past couple of days. It's about a man who takes what, at the time, would've been considered a "liberal" view the civil rights issue, a predominate issue for the American south during that time. His name is Rayber, and when his barber asked him who he was going to vote for, and he replied that it would be the liberal (read: pro civil rights) candidate, the barber began to deride him in the chair, along with others in the room. He proceded to extol the opposing side, not from the perspective of issues and fact. But, rather, he exalts the entertaining aspects of his candidate's speech. This frustrates Rayber to no end. In fact, the story goes on to tell how Rayber becomes completely obsessed with setting the barber straight on these issues from a perspective of logic, rather than entertainment and emotion. While he is able to do this in his head and on paper, Rayber struggles to do it on-the-spot with the Barber and his cronies listening in. In the end he leaves the shop, shaving cream still on his face. He has to find another barber.
It's a simple story, but I related to Rayber on so many levels. Like Rayber, I've had so many of these after-the-fact-conversations in my head. In the shower. While driving alone. This was a painful story to read, actually.
Here's the thing. Like Rayber, I want things to be right. Words matter. At least they matter to me. I have often been guilty of making issues over semantics, because meaning is important. In fact, it may be the most important thing about language. This means there are times when quibbling over words and phrases and how things are stated is a worthy quibble. However, like Rayber - I've sometimes taken these things too seriously. I've had too many fake arguments in the shower, where I do, indeed, come out the victor, but only as I dry off. I need to take Rayber's colleague's advice.
"Don't spoil your complexion arguing with barbers"
Because, in fact, barbers are just that. They are barbers. In O'Conner's story the Barber at one point calls his barber shop cohorts over to finally hear Rayber's prepared arguments. Rayber is in hyper-combative mode. He's prepared. He's ready to let 'em have, tell-it-like-it-is. The Barber informs everyone in the shop, "Rayber's all right. He don't know how to vote, but he's alright."
Rayber fails once again, and leaves in self-attained humiliation, anger and frustration.
Sometimes it's not about winning an argument. Sometimes it's better to relax and allow poor semantics be what they are. It's better to be at peace, than to spoil one's complexion arguing with barbers.