I was sitting in my car on main street, recently, waiting for a break in the traffic so I could back out and drive on. My backup lights were lit, my turn signal flashing, so drivers knew I was trying to exit. The parking downtown is nose-first, angled to the sidewalk, so you need to back into the oncoming traffic lane to leave. All I needed was a single driver to stop and allow me out. A few seconds of someone’s time. But even though the traffic light stopped the cars, drivers still came up right behind me to block my exit. Where, I wondered, had people’s manners gone, how had people become so uncivil that they could not even commit a simple act of courtesy?
In his book, Walden, in fact in the very first chapter, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” I would offer that today — at least based on the noisome detritus posted on social media — this is more like “lives of loud, rude selfishness and self-inflicted ignorance.” Thoreau never had the opportunity to spend an hour observing people in a grocery store or big box outlet during a pandemic, or during a Black Friday sale, but if he had I suspect his view would be closer to mine.*
Pandemic rules like wearing a mask, social distancing, one-way aisles, and using hand sanitizer serve two functions: the first and most obvious is to reduce the opportunities to spread the coronavirus, but the second is an ethical test: are you or your fellow humans even aware of or give a shit about others, or just think about yourself? If you do consider the welfare of others as equally important to your own, and you obey the rules, then you at least have some manners.
Some of these rules or policies had to be passed into law, rather than being left as a preferred code of behaviour. Leaving it up to individuals to behave maturely and responsibly, with consideration to others during a pandemic, and expecting people to exhibit a basic understanding of simple hygiene and health failed miserably early on: far too many people quickly proved too selfish, or too stupid, or both to care about others. The utter failure of many adults to act in a mature, civilized, responsible, and non-selfish manner was made evident in the anti-mask demonstrations. Rudeness and selfishness came to the fore too often to leave it up to individuals.
We have laws against littering, jaywalking, parking on sidewalks, defecating and urinating in public, disobeying traffic lights, letting your lawn grow too high, letting your dog run loose, driving while drunk, smoking in public places. All sorts of laws to maintain social order have been passed to enforce what should be automatic, considerate, responsible behaviour (aka manners). But clearly we are not collectively mature or responsible enough for manners alone; to remain even passably civilized, laws are necessary. ***
Manners are a moral imperative, even a virtue. They measure whether people can behave well towards one another without any incentive or motivation to do so. Laws are what we get when we can’t, but manners are equally important as a sign of our ability to govern ourselves as a democracy. Behaving well, behaving mannerly, may not be profitable, but it’s a powerful motivator for anyone not obsessed with mere glitter and material goods. As Edmund Burke wrote in 1796, in his Letters on a Regicide,
Manners are of more importance than laws. Upon them, in a great measure, the laws depend. The law touches us but here and there, and now and then. Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, but a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe in. They give their whole form and color to our lives. According to their quality, they aid morals, they supply them, or they totally destroy them.
That’s worth repeating: manners are more important than laws. Why? Because they are self-administered and thus show us for who we are, not who others determine we must be. Manners take our measure. In her book, Why Manners Matter (Random House Australia, 2007)**, Lucinda Holdforth explained:
Destroy manners — sweep aside all of a society’s habits, conventions, and patterns of behaviour — and you may well find you have nothing left but chaos. And because human beings cannot live for long in a state of anarchy, sooner or later some form of oppressive authority will step in to restore order on new, more punitive premises.
Which is clearly what is happening in the USA today. President Trump (aka Putin’s Puppet) has behaved abysmally, lacking manners in and out of office: he has insulted, lied, cheated, stolen, squandered taxpayers’ money, given his unqualified children and campaign contributors positions of power, and then bragged about his mannerless and petty behaviour. And he has encouraged his followers to behave similarly: without manners or civility or consideration for others (which they have done). He has done so in order to be able to implement a more repressive state to manage the very chaos he himself created. It’s a subtle, but effective coup.