A lesson I learned early in life

On Facebook yesterday, an economist friend wrote that, in criticizing work by Thomas Piketty, he was claiming that Piketty is arrogant. He asked me (and others) if I thought that it was a good idea for him to make a joke linking Piketty’s presumed arrogance with his being French and an intellectual.

I advised him against doing so. I said that if it is important to establish that Piketty is arrogant, then it is important not to undercut his case with nasty humor. He agreed and decided not to do so. (He gave me permission to use his name in this story but I have decided against.)

In thinking through this, I realize that I learned the lesson about not getting personal when I was a teenager watching my mother engage in a controversy in our small town of Carman, Manitoba. Indeed, because of that lesson, I would be inclined not even to call Piketty arrogant even if I believed it.

Here’s what happened back in about 1965. Gary Loeppky, a friend of my late brother, Paul, and me, decided to grow his hair long. He was the first person at Carman Collegiate, a school with about 300 students, to do so. The principal of Carman Collegiate was a man named Frank McKinnon. McKinnon told Gary that he was expelled from school until he got his hair cut.

My mother, Norah Henderson, thought Gary was getting a raw deal. She wrote a letter to the editor of the local newspaper, the Dufferin Leader, making her case. She signed it “A Parent.” I’m guessing the reason she didn’t sign her name is that my father, Stan Henderson, was a teacher at that high school and she worried that her writing that letter would make it awkward for him. She probably also worried that it would make it awkward for her because, odds are, my father would have been angry at her.

Why mention that she didn’t sign her name? It matters for the story, as you’ll soon see.

A week later appeared another letter in that weekly newspaper from a prominent citizen of Carman named Harry Dunn. He argued against my mother’s argument, saying that Gary should follow the rules and conform. If I recall correctly, he also said that if people didn’t conform in such says, things would be chaotic. (There’s a 30 percent probability that I’m imagining that last part, though.)

Two things made his letter interesting. First, my mother and Harry were friends and he probably had no clue that he was arguing against her. Second, he was very flamboyant. Although he was in his sixties, he rode around town on a bicycle. In my town of 1,800, that made you flamboyant in the 1960s. He also wore colorful scarves, the kind you just did not see on any other man. If you had asked almost anyone in town whether Harry Dunn was a non-conformist, you would have been laughed at for asking a question to which the answer was so obvious.

My mother sat down to type out (You remember typewriters, right? If not, then Google it) her answer. “She’s going to nail him,” I thought. “This is going to be great.”

Except that she didn’t. She did use his individuality to make her case. I remember one section of the letter saying something like “We all have our different ways of expressing our individuality. Some of us do it with our hair; others with other choices we make.”

“Come on, Mum” (we used the British rather than the American version), I said, “Make it more direct. Say something like ‘others with our choices of scarves.'”

“No,” she said.

“How come?” I said, disappointed that she wouldn’t stick in the knife.

“Two reasons,” she said. “First, that’s mean. And that’s enough of a reason. Second, I want to convince not just the other readers but the person who will read this most closely: Harry. If I embarrass him, he’s less likely to reconsider his views.”

One other thing I learned from this experience was to keep a secret. The principal never knew, none of the teachers knew, the other students didn’t know, and even my father didn’t know, who wrote the letter.