AT A RESTAURANT in the city of Washington, a place of some repute, the owner sits at a table with some customers. It is late, the place is closing, and a film of fatigue covers the owner's face like grease from the kitchen. She tells her customers about her business, the nuts and bolts of it -- things about ordering and spillage and wages for the help.This is how she came to say what she said about Jews.

She talked about her lease. It is a standard lease, nothing exceptional, and what it does is allow the landlord to take a piece of the business -- a percentage. The owner resents this, resents working for the landlord the same way we all resent taxes, working for Uncle Sam, but when she came to characterizing her landlord and the bargain he had driven, she called him a Jew. It offended us, but it explained everything to her.

Stop. Don't jump to conclusions. This is not really about Jews -- not exclusively about Jews, anyway. It's also about blacks and Indians and homosexuals and Poles and others, including women. But I first came to notice it because it does have to do with Jews also, with me, so to speak -- with the fact that all of a sudden the mail has been rough and the air full of garbage. People are saying things that used to not be said.

Take Billy Carter. He said some things, some anti-Semitic things, and the White House had nothing to say about it. Some people did have something to say about it, though, and when Billy was asked about his Jewish critics, he said they could kiss his "ass." Then lots of people got upset and the president moved decisively. He leaked the news that he and Billy differed on the matter. He called his friend Bob Strauss and told him and Strauss told the press. There it stood until Mr. Carter was questioned at a press conference on the issue of anti-Semitism.

There is a reason for this. The reason is that the president, like the owner of the restaurant, think along similar lines. To them, an anti-Semite is a Nazi, a killer, a builder of concentration camps and the murderer of little children. An anti-Semite is not someone like Billy Carter, not any Carter, for crying out loud. They have a record on these matters.They have hired Jews. They have befriended Jews. You cannot think they are anti-Semites. And I really do not.

But they are like lots of people who think they have somehow proved their bona fides -- marched somewhere, sat-in somewhere, rallied somewhere, paid some sort of dues -- and can therefore talk like a bigot. They think bigotry is always the same as hate or violence -- always accompanied by the shattering of glass -- and that it has nothing to do with words, with a way of thinking. All of a sudden, the word "nigger" is making a comeback. All off a sudden, people think it chic to talk despairingly about blacks, that you can be liberal in action and redneck in speech or liberated in the way you deal with women but a real pig when it comes to talking about them. The ultimate example of this kind of thing is Griffin Bell, who thinks his record as a progressive Southerner entitles him to membership in a restricted country club.

Some of this is understandable. Some of it has to do with being lied to, with being told that all people are the same. It is the response to the Great Society rhetoric of the 1960s, of operating behind a haze of euphemism. We have banished all the harsh words. There are no more cripples and no more stupid kids. Crazy people are no more and bad kids are no more and someone who is really dumb is called exceptional. We have to concentrate, translate all the time, see one thing and say something else. We have been dying to call things by what we think are their proper names.

Well, some of this is healthy and wonderful, not to mention overdue. In some ways it's good because it lends a touch of realism -- highlights the fact that there are really differences between people -- that the indigenous poor, for instance, are more likely to bop you on the head than are the indigenous affluent. Such is life.

But some of it has gone too far. Some of what you hear now is nothing more than old-fashioned bigotry all dressed up as the new conservatism or admirable frankness. Mort Sahl, for instance, was given a microphone to say, among other things, some rotten things about homosexuals, becoming something of a latter-day Father Coughlin. People said he was telling it like it is. He was, in fact, telling it like it isn't, and he has gone back now to California because he chose to, not because his station, WRC-radio, discovered good taste -- not because there was a roar of outrage from the "straight" community.

So the more I think of the lady who owns the restaurant, the more I have to conclude she is like lots of others. She is like my friends who say harsh words about homesexuals and some of my friends who are slipping back into the language of sexism and others, like me, who will refer, as I have done in columns, to somebody by their race when their race has nothing to do with nothing. She is no different from many people I know.

Some of my best friends talk like bigots.