My mother is a button. In fact, she’s the ultimate button, and so is your mom. I speak of the incantation “Your mother wears combat boots,” or some variation thereof that causes smoke to come out of men’s ears and blood to rush to their faces and fists to fly. This expected, and practically demanded, reaction (“Ooooh, did you hear what he called your mother?”) is a kind of “social skill” we learn and society abides, like telling white lies or spanking your kids or cheating on your taxes. We all either do it, condone it, or simply accept it as a part of life.
However, my feeling is that the peoples of the earth should rid themselves of buttons in general, and, this one in particular because it is so pervasive, infesting almost every culture on earth. However, the consequences, violent and swift, which follow such a “provocative” insult are not what concern me most about this particular phenomenum, because such degrees of violence can also occur in any number of highly emotional conflicts. I’m sure commenting on someone’s mother’s boots would hardly be noticed, if not exactly considered polite, in a drug deal gone bad where everyone is reaching for Uzis. In China hardly anyone carries firearms, but in Yunnan and Sichuan provinces in the south of China, where eating hot peppers is a way of life (why is it always in the ‘south’ and people who eat ‘chilies’?) arguments are hot blooded, and men and women both join in.
I once saw a young woman and young man arguing on the sidewalk in front of a bank and about 50 lookers-on, voices rising, arms flailing, fingers pointing. Then suddenly flecks of spittle started flying out of the man’s mouth as he yelled, swirling around and past the woman’s head. He didn’t appear to be doing it intentionally, but he also wasn’t trying to stop it. The woman couldn’t accuse him of spitting at her, and she had no defense for it except to keep screaming right back into his face. Since neither had the wherewithal to invoke the “mother” button, and Uzis are illegal, the fight ended in a draw.
But as I say, what bothers me more than the violence is the “slavish servitude” shown by men (and boys) in reacting violently to defend what I assume they think is their mothers’ honor. “You can call me any name you want, steal my car, and shoot my dog. But don’t say nothin’ ’bout my mama.” Late night radio phone-in talk show host Ray Taliaferro on KGO Radio, San Francisco, was once talking to a pronounced racist who, failing to say anything even remotely resembling the reasoned and dignified arguments put forth by the host to refute the “outworn shibboleths” of racism, finally reverted to the “mother” button. Mr. Taliaferro explained to his caller that even though most men are expected to have a visceral reaction to hearing such words, he was not going to “play that game.” I would have added that the epithet was as harmless as a puff of air, given neither meaning nor merit nor consequence by anyone that is independent of such base and churlish manipulations. It is my wish that all insults, and especially this mother of buttons, be regarded as such.