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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.
The popular shopping cart “theory” is a just subset of the larger scope of manners, but it illustrates it well:
The shopping cart is ultimate litmus test for whether a person is capable of self-governing.
To return the shopping cart is an easy, convenient task and one which we all recognize as the correct, appropriate thing to do. To return the shopping cart is objectively right.
There are no situations other than dire emergencies in which a person is not able to return their care. Simultaneously, it is not illegal to abandon your shopping cart. Therefore the shopping cart presents itself as the apex example of whether a person will do what is right without being forced to do it.
No one will punish you for not returning the shopping cart, no one will find you or kill you for not returning the shopping cart. You must return the shopping cart out of the goodness of your own heart. You must return the shopping cart because it is the right thing to do. Because it is correct.
And, of course, you can drive into any box or grocery store parking lot and see carts abandoned in the parking area simply because it was inconvenient for the shoppers who used them to push them the few meters into the return zone. That this makes more work for anyone, or blocks the parking spaces others might use is irrelevant: it’s all about what matters to me, me, me.
In a consumerist culture such as ours, personal convenience always tops doing something — anything — that might benefit others without offering an equal or benefit to yourself. We are, collectively, only motivated by our own gain or profit, and convenience. But manners are also easily eroded in a culture that tolerates toxic masculinity and systemic racism, both of which are prevalent in Western nations (both of which treat other people — women and non-whites, respectively — as inferior sub-humans). Of course, manners are also a sign of self-respect and self-confidence, which both misogynists and racists lack.
Manners are not synonymous with civility, although they are connected. Civility, as Stephen Carter points out in his book of that name (Civility, Harper Perennial, 1998), is “an attitude of respect, even love, for our fellow citizens… a moral issue, not just a matter of habit or convention.” But it goes deeper than just an attitude: civility is inextricably linked with civil governance:
Civility has always been considered a requirement for democratic discourse. Defined frequently as general politeness and courtesy, civility is valued as an indicator of a functional democratic society. Conversations on the meaning of citizenship, democracy, and public discourse highlight civility as a virtue, the lack of which carries detrimental implications for a democratic society.
Manners are the means by which we practice civility; the unwritten rules and forms that shape our daily interactions with others. They are little things, often, but each act shows respect for others, for the community. Opening a door for someone, not wearing a hat at the table, not chewing gum in a meeting, thanking a cashier or a server, waiting in line, wearing a face mask when shopping, not talking on your phone in the check-out line, wishing strangers a good morning when you pass in the street, not driving with your fog lights on during clement weather, not smoking in public — these are manners.
(Politeness belongs here too; although often conflated with both manners and civility, it defines behaviour: the level of interaction between individuals in some transaction or activity).
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his essay Social Aims, “Good manners are made up of petty sacrifices.” Carter adds (p. 11) these are the “many sacrifices we are called to make for the sake of living together… as a signal respect for our fellow citizens, marking them as full equals…” Aye, but there’s the rub: in the modern culture of selfish convenience, no one else is equal: only ourselves, only our own needs and wants matter. Respect for others? Rubbish! What’s in it for me?
Emerson also wrote in his essay, Manners, “Manners aim to facilitate life, to get rid of impediments… They aid our dealing and conversation, as a railway aids travelling, by getting rid of all avoidable obstructions of the road, and leaving nothing to be conquered but pure space. These forms very soon become fixed, and a fine sense of propriety is cultivated with the more heed, that it becomes a badge of social and civil distinctions.”
In part we lost our manners and civility because of thee rise in technology, as Carter notes, “…technological change makes them seem less necessary… but they are also a casualty of the illusion generated by our wealth and privilege, that in our luxury we have no fellow passengers.”
A good example is the automobile: we drive alone and take umbrage at anyone else on the road, especially when they don’t drive the way we think they should. When we get cut off, we don’t worry the other driver is running late or has an emergency that requires they get ahead of us: we rail at them for being an asshole. It’s OUR car on OUR road: why should we allow others to behave as they wish? They should pay more attention to ME and MY needs on MY road!
We don’t see other drivers as individuals like ourselves: we see their vehicles, as objects. We see them as obstacles that interfere with our own driving. Road rage isn’t a rare phenomenon: it’s a common state of being in an increasingly self-focused population. When we’re driving in town, we have no sense of anyone outside our cars, so we crank up the stereo to deafening levels and open the windows without even a thought that it might disturb others we drive past. We mount loud pipes on trucks and bikes to make noise and attract attention to ourselves (because being noticed is important for selfish people), regardless of how that noise affects others, because it’s all about me, me, me!
Exactly the same thing happens online. I wake up in MY bed in MY house, come down MY stairs in MY pajamas, brew a cup of MY tea, turn on MY computer on MY internet connection, and load MY Facebook timeline. What are all those assholes doing posting things on MY timeline that I don’t like or agree with? So I rant and rage at them (yes, I am also guilty of that at times; my tolerance for rightwing claptrap has been eroded by its frequency and feces-like consistency, so I descend into mannerless rebuttal).
Internet rage is even more common than road rage in part because we see the web as our personal playground, not a community space, but also because we are now more connected online than on the roads. We don’t see other online users as individuals because for the most part all we see are their words. We have no more personal connection to them than we have with the words in a book or newspaper, so why be polite? (notice how people are far more polite in a video conference when they can see each other’s faces?)
Hence the growing bodies of law to manage what should be self-controlled, responsible behaviour on the roads and online: we clearly cannot behave in a respectful, civilized way without these laws. Even with laws, we need strict enforcement because we still misbehave when we think we can get away with it (look at how many drivers run yellow and red lights, even here in our small town).
And then we get into that quagmire of protests and screeching tantrums about how these laws infringe someone’s “rights” to act in a selfish, irresponsible manner (like not wearing a mask in a store). In a consumerist society, we are all entitled to do as we please and damn anyone who tries to stop us. We have “rights” but no responsibilities, because responsibilities inconvenience us. They are the antithesis of the me! me! me! worldview that dominates our culture and we thrive in.
Anti-mask and anti-vaccine protests are the epitome of me! me! me! because for the protestors (as it is for smokers who treat the streets and sidewalks like their private ashtrays) nothing matters more than their own selfish little space. Manners? They have become old fashioned obstacles to getting what we want.
* In his second chapter of Walden, Thoreau also wrote,
The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?
We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor.
Being awake means being aware; being conscious of everything around you. In Buddhism, it’s called mindfulness, one of the “seven factors of awakening,” and is included in at least two of the items on the “eightfold path” of the dharma (right mindfulness, and right concentration); there’s a whole training process to help people achieve it. But in modern, consumerist societies, being awake, aware, mindful, or even functionally conscious most of the time seems like a lost cause. There are too many distractions: text messages, tweets, Netflix shows, big box sales, fancy cars, clothes, hairstyles, music videos, pop stars, and other glitter for many people to pay attention to things and people around them. Manners require awareness and being awake.
** In the Kirkus review of Holdforth’s book, it noted:
We need civil behavior if civilization is to hold together. Consensual good manners, she asserts, are better than both laws and religion. As we have just discovered anew, greed is not good for us. Ever since the heyday of Athenian democracy, community service and cooperation have consistently made the world work better.
*** As Holdforth notes, while laws are easy to pass, and make legislators feel like they are doing good, many of these social behaviour laws are either unenforceable or are simply ignored by law enforcement (like the bylaw prohibiting riding a bicycle on our main street sidewalks is ignored by both officials and riders). Too many laws become draconian and lead to as much repression as Trump expects to implement after the upcoming election (regardless of whether he wins).
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