Dominick Lawton

Dear Hypocrite: An Advice Column


Dear Hypocrite,

We recently moved into a new apartment building. Some of the neighbors are kind of weird. On the one hand, they seem nice, and have invited us over to plan playdates between our son and their daughter, and maybe do something for the Fourth. (That "something" would have to be non-alcoholic because they don't drink, which I'm not judging but Independence Day with no beer seems just wrong.)

But sometimes when they see us walking down the street they pull their daughter away nervously, and a couple times have even hidden around a corner (?!) waiting for us to pass by. We think the way they raise her is sort of weird even though she seems like a really nice little girl. For instance, every time she plays with a clean toy, that toy becomes "dirty" and gets put away in a separate toy container for dirty toys, even if it's just playing with a ball on the floor. Their apartment is totally full of containers of toys of varying degrees of cleanliness. Floor to ceiling. Also, we have talked to them several times and they never ask regular questions, like "what do you do." Instead they ask about our son's health (he is perfectly healthy).

How can we be good neighbors despite these reservations? Can we be neighbors without being friends? Why aren't they more chill? Should we just be accepting? Is it ok to not hang out on the 4th of July? Are we supposed to invite them over to our apartment since they have invited us over? Help please!

Great Commandment

Dear Great Commandment,

America's a weird place, isn't it? Some people pursue fad diets; others never go anywhere without hand sanitizer; still others protect their darling kids by devising inscrutable kashrut-style schemas of toy cleanliness. Reading your inquiry raised innumerable questions for me -- how does a "dirty" toy become "clean" again? What's the purification process? Surely the toys aren't all used once, then destroyed? What kind of deferred class anxiety must be fueling this? -- but since my job here is to answer the questions, not ask them, I'll put my curiosity aside for the moment.

First of all, your letter suggests you're already quite aware of this, but your neighbors' idiosyncrasies shouldn't be taken personally. Whatever provokes them to cache their child around the nearest corner when they see you on the street can't have much to do with you, since it apparently doesn't stop them from wanting to plan play-dates and patriotic gatherings with you. These are clearly people who rely on an intimate, rigorous system of mental rules and separations to give order to their lives, and while you may find this analytically fascinating -- I certainly do -- it's unlikely to be something that anyone other than them, and perhaps their circle of intimates, deeply understands. Slavoj Žižek, himself a notorious weirdo, argues that neighbors present us with an ultimate ethical frontier: to acknowledge the humanity of our neighbor means not to understand them as fundamentally like ourselves, or to project ourselves onto them, but rather to acknowledge the intractably mysterious nature of their desire; although they live alongside us, our neighbors are separate, other beings, whose inner selves remain enigmatic, rendering their proximity to us almost terrifying.

So, yes, be accepting... but that doesn't mean you can't keep your distance from your disconcerting fellow apartment-dwellers. It may even in fact require that you do so. Sociality mediates the unease inherent in sharing close spaces with (unchosen) others by imposing forms of distance, softening the often profound incommensurability of different people's true selves through the homogenizing filter of conventions -- like the "regular questions" that your neighbors steadfastly refuse to ask, indicating that they aren't entirely playing by the rules here; nonetheless, their tendency to hide when you pass by could be seen as an attempt, although one which comes off as odd and discomfiting, to maintain the same kind of respectful distance.

Since you're clearly, and understandably, not interested in intimacy with them, polite sociality seems like the way to go, and I encourage you to take the lead. I'd make other plans for the Fourth -- go drink beer with abandon -- but invite them round to your place as a gesture of good will. Don't feel compelled to force a friendship; just be friendly. Lay out your most pristine toys, hide the wine, and see if you can get them to connect on a level that feels more normal than their usual (you could always ostentatiously start conversations about your jobs). Your neighborly duty will be done, you can indulge in the pleasure of private gossip afterwards, and then (hopefully) you'll feel relieved of the pressure to wonder about them any more.

Yours from the other end of the room,

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