Right-wing reading in the corporate john

Shouldn't the company crapper be a collegial, neutral environment?

Published August 31, 2006 11:00AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I work in a fairly large office, with about 50 others on my floor. Everyone gets along pretty well, but as I suspect is almost always the case when any number of people share a space, people sometimes do things that subtly encroach on the environment in ways that are discomfiting, or just downright perplexing.

For the past couple of months someone has been routinely leaving printouts of articles from politically conservative news sources on the floor in one of the two stalls in the men's bathroom. This has begun to irk me because 1) this is obviously littering in a public space -- who does this person expect to throw it out, given that it is sitting on the floor in a toilet? -- and 2) I feel that it is a passive-aggressive attempt to insert controversial opinions (which I happen to disagree with vociferously) into what ought to be a collegial and basically neutral environment.

Although I have my suspicions, I don't know for sure who is doing this. Given that, what, if anything, can I do about it? People would probably think me a little strange if I were to start inquiring around about it, even if only in the mild way of asking if others had noticed it as well. I could try to get the office manager to send a reminder to everyone not to litter/leave things in the bathroom, but that would seem to be casting the net a bit wide for an issue localized to one person and one bathroom stall.

At any rate, I don't want to overstate an issue that is, in a practical sense, easy to ignore. I suppose my concern is mainly philosophical. Is it worth trying to do something about this for principled reasons? My feeling is that in our culture we are far too often obliged to put up with unpleasant encroachments into our public spaces that are beyond our control. Shouldn't we exert our will in spheres we can possibly influence? Do we have a political obligation to do so? Or am I making something out of nothing? Certainly the last thing I want is to end up taking a tack that is merely awkward and unnecessary -- impolitic in quite another sense.

Upright Citizen, Dismayed

Dear Upright Citizen,

I am surprised that you consider this an unpleasant encroachment into a public sphere, rather than as a fine and noble tradition.

In my view, the corporate men's room stall is a sacred space, a small and intimate temple, actually, where men briefly bask in the ancient mournful camaraderie of shit and death. Being such, it has certain traditions and rules.

The leaving of reading material for the next man is a venerable and near-universal practice by which men take narrative communion. You seem to have stumbled upon a particularly interesting vestige of this ancient practice and yet you disparage it. Why? Is it the content of the material itself? Or is it the practice?

I for one value the practice, even if the material disagrees with me.

One man leaves something for the next man to read. The viewpoint expressed need not be shared. By reading the opposite of what you believe you can join these men in spirit, if not in ideology.

What better place for right wing and left wing to come together in common humanity than in the toilet?

Why should you be so all self-righteous about this right-wing information? We are not having a civil war in this country. Right-wingers are not the enemy. They are simply troublesome friends. I say, love the right-wing asshole who leaves propaganda in your stall!

How very seriously we take this! That is what I notice. We live on a dying planet. We don't have an unquestioned place in the cosmos. We don't have an unquestioned place in the tribe. We have jobs and cubicles and bathroom stalls.

In this lonely and, for some men, shameful moment of defecation, when we stink up the world, the written material rescues us from our symbolic experience of death (that awful thing will eventually be us; that is our formless, disgusting, unavoidable future; we will all be like shit in the ground one day).

So I heartily suggest that you participate in this tradition of camaraderie rather than shun it. Leave some Noam Chomsky stuff in there if you have to, but communicate! Leave some good poems. Leave something provocative like Revolutionary Poetry.

But participate! We kill culture with our stiffness. We kill it with propriety. We kill it with our separateness. And while I don't agree with him on the issue of bathroom sports page reading ("Theoretically," he says, "what youre holding is a huge, folded piece of toilet paper with athletes on it"), I suggest you read Matt Sebek's thoughtful Guide to the Corporate Crapper. It may be just the thing you need to find the golden mean between propriety and tradition.

Lastly: By no means should you suggest the office manager send a reminder to everyone not to leave things in the bathroom. Leaving things in the bathroom is, after all, exactly what we aim to do, however poor our aim.

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