The daughters of a woman who works with my wife spent the afternoon with us on Wednesday when their school was closed because of flooding. The girls are roughly the ages of my younger sons and they’ve become compatible if not best friends. Both girls are bright, articulate, personable and affectionate – kids whose company is easy to enjoy. At the library they collected their stacks of books and we met at a table in the children’s section. The girls favor manga, Japanese comic books about which I know nothing. My 5-year-old and the younger of the girls sat on my lap as the older one showed us the back-to-front layout of the manga.
A library patron, a woman of about 35, was watching us – watching me. My arms were around the kids and I had the uncomfortable sensation of being evaluated as a possible pedophile, if not already convicted. It was the glare of the relentlessly virtuous, and here was my dilemma: Do I do what comes naturally and what I would do without a second thought at home – that is, go on holding the kids? Or do I loosen my embrace and move them away – subtly, as if that would somehow absolve my guilt in the eyes of this woman? And why do I care what she thinks? She’s a nosy, suspicious stranger, someone whose opinion ought to mean nothing to me. I waffled and told the kids we were leaving – sooner than any of us wished. My discomfort in the library was hardly unique. D.G. Myers at The Commonplace Blog has touched on this uneasy subject:
“The denigration of normal men is not the only consequence of the general dirty-mindedness. When all men are potential perverts, actual perverts disappear into the crowd, losing their special brand of evil. They can no longer be distinguished from other men.”
In other words, more is at stake than my occasional uneasiness. David was responding, in part, to an essay at Pajamas Media by Mary Jackson, who writes of the corresponding situation in England:
“It is acceptable — just — for a woman to talk to someone else’s child in a public place, but a man who does the same thing must be a pervert. Has it come to this? How many perverts are there, for goodness sake?”
I resent the intrusion of the virtue police in our lives. Even more, I resent that I have internalized their intrusion and learned to question and stifle my nature. “Don’t smile please,” by the late D.J. Enright, dates from the early nineties and nails this phenomenon with rueful precision:
“Since the primary school is next door
You can’t help passing the playground
But don’t you smile at the children
Whether a small girl or a little boy
Don’t you even look
You know what people will think
And you really can’t blame them.
“What a world we live in! What went wrong?
If there’s another world to come
Let’s hope it’s one where people smile
And you can smile back safely.
“Once they asked you to return their ball
It had sailed over the palings –
Eyes cast discreetly upwards, you stepped
Into the street and were nearly run down
Still, a little boy said `Thank you, mister’
A small girl almost smiled.”
There it is: “You know what people will think.” Life grows a little grimmer when we mind the business of others.