(how come we’re all suddenly on a nickname basis with this guy?) keeps complaining about Gates’ “tone.” In fact, that’s really his only beef, it turns out, with Gates, his tone.
It’s an American obsession, tone. It echoes from lousy teachers trying to assert authority over truculent children, to nannies in the playground, to mothers and fathers with wise-guy kids at the dinner table, to spouses locked in increasing enmity, to the police who seem to think that mockery or condescension or sarcasm are felonies.
No doubt race exacerbates the tonal divide, but, I’d argue, it isn’t principally about race. A black person might have a greater chance of being hauled off for implying a policeman is a moron, but, with enough insistence and repetition (and once you do hit that right tone, it’s hard to stop), a white guy will get hauled off, too (as for women with a nasty tone, they take them to an insane asylum).
What this adverse tone—as in ‘watch your tone’—means is that you think you’re better than the other guy. He wears his stupidity like a funny hat, so how could you not take note of it? He’s an incredible incompetent. In fact, a total cipher. Slow and dense and literal and contributing nothing to humankind—subtracting, actually.
Skip Gates, we all now know, on occasion, so expresses himself to police officers. In my case, to the horror of my friends and family, this is, I’m afraid, how I often find myself talking to waiters in my neighborhood in New York (who have been smoking marijuana shortly before waiting on me).
In America this isn’t really acceptable. You really aren’t allowed to let people know you regard them as hopeless, and annoying, and really, really bad at the job they're supposed to be doing.
This is partly an egalitarian point. You can’t go around implying that people are lesser mortals, even if they obviously are—that’s a shocking offense. And then, beyond the issues of snobbery and hierarchy and class, there’s the issue of American good manners. The standard of American good manners is niceness—the blander you are, the nicer you are.
Almost any effort at clarification or precision or definition or distinction is going to seem, in the face of bland American social intercourse, to be tonally suspicious.
This is one reason why we are so boring—we’re not really allowed to speak up or talk back or remotely risk the possibility that we might make some patently incompetent individual feel bad about him or herself.
So I’m with Skip—let’s all get out there and insult a boob.
More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at email@example.com.