Skip to comments.Minding Our Manners - Egalitarianismís assault on class aims to make us all equally rude.
Posted on 04/06/2006 4:45:12 PM PDT by neverdem
My parents had conflicting views about the nature and origin of good manners. My father took the Romantic view that they were the expression of man’s natural goodness of heart and that they therefore emerged spontaneouslythat is, if they emerged at all. If they didn’t, it was because of the social injustice that inhibited or destroyed natural goodness. My mother took the classical view that good manners were a matter of discipline, training, and habit and that goodness of heart would, at least to an extent, follow in their wake. The older I grow, the more decisively I take my mother’s side.
My father, who was left-wing in everything except his life, believed that manners in my mother’s sense were but etiquette and that in turn etiquette was but a code by which the elite distinguished itself from hoi polloi in order to maintain its economic and cultural dominance. An elaborate code of conduct with arbitrary rules was a mask for sectional self-interest.
No doubt there is sometimes an element of truth in this. My mother taught me that when a gentleman accompanied a lady in the streetand he was to treat all women as ladieshe was always to walk on her outside, nearer the curb. There once was a time when this would have protected her from the splashes created by vehicles passing hurriedly by on muddy roads or perhaps even from the slops that householders emptied from their windows above. But this rationale had long since ceased to be the reason for a gentleman to walk on the outside of a lady.
My mother, however, instilled this principle so deeply in me that to this day I cannot walk on the inside of a ladyor, as we would call her now, a woman without a feeling of unease very akin to guilt, as if I were doing something morally wrong. The fact is that most women nowadays have no idea why I change the side on which I accompany them when we cross the road, and some are even slightly disturbed by it, which, of course, obviates the whole purpose of good manners. I am thus left with an uncomfortable dilemma: either I must put up with an inner discomfort myself or risk causing my companion discomfort. It is clear which a true gentleman must choose.
It is obvious that, from the moral point of view, it matters not a bit on which side of the sidewalk a man accompanies a woman, unless she expresses a preference for one or the other. In this instance, my father would appear to have been right and to insist upon walking on the outer side of a woman would be not so much good manners as the self-conscious expression of superior caste.
A problem arises, however, when all such rules, arbitrary as some of them might be, are eroded to the point of total informality. The culture of any society becomes graceless in the absence of all formality, a development that is peculiarly evident in my own country, Great Britain. Here, gracelessness has become, by a peculiar ideological inversion that has occurred in my lifetime, a manifestation of political virtue. My father’s view of the whole matter of manners has triumphed all but completely.
The argument goes something like this: formality is etiquette, and etiquette is a manifestation of an unjust, class-ridden, patriarchal society. The rejection of etiquette and the formality it entails is therefore a sign that one is on the side of the angels, that is to say, of the egalitarians. Modern egalitarians, at least in Britain, do not content themselves with the kind of abstract or formal equality before the law that allows any amount of difference in wealth, status, taste, and sensibility; they demand some progress towards equalization of everything, including manners.
Of course, egalitarians are just as attached as everyone else to their own material possessions and wealth and have no real intention of forgoing them by radical redistribution, at any rate, of their own money and possessions. The struggle for equalityof the actual rather than the formal kindhas therefore to be transferred to fields in which it will cost the egalitarian nothing, or nothing material and financial.
What better way to prove your egalitarian credentials than by adopting the supposedly free and easy, utterly informal manners of those at the bottom of the social scale? The freer and easier the better, for such informality demonstrates another quality beloved of, and praised by, intellectuals: a superiority to the dictates of convention. Thus you can never be quite informal or unconventional enough.
In Britain, this has led in short order to the rejection of the most elementary of social rules. Young Britons now appear to think, for example, that the function of empty seats on trains is as a receptacle for their feet. (Why they should be the footweariest generation in history is a mystery, unless their behavior is considered as a deliberate challenge to convention.) A passenger who draws the attention of a young adult to the anti-social presence of his feet upon a seat will be met either by a torrent of abuse or, if the person doing it is better-educated, by moral self-justification. The last time I said anything about it, the young woman in question, by no means unpleasant, pointed out that her feet were clean, she having first removed her shoes, and that therefore she was within her rights. I was left searching for a Cartesian point from which to prove beyond all possible doubt that putting your feet up on seats in trains was wrong. It is a wearisome business trying to prove from first epistemological principles in every instance of minor public misconduct that it is morally wrong, especially when every failure to make the case is a justification for further such misconduct. It is strange how egalitarianism results in a rabid form of individualism, an angry individualism without worthwhile individuality.
Young women patients of mine who came from middle-class homes would routinely put their feet on the chair in which they were sitting in my consulting room. Patients chewed gum while speaking to me or ate snacks and drank soft drinks from cans (leaving them on the floor beside the chair when they had finished) as I inquired about their medical histories. A friend of mine, a doctor, told me how one of his patients had made her social arrangements for the evening on her cell phone while he was performing a gynecological examination on her.
This excess of informality is very undignified and unattractive and results in a society constantly on edge, even in the smallest of interactions. I think it explains in part the worldwide success of a series of books by my friend Alexander McCall Smith about a lady private detective in Botswana called Mma Ramotswe. For the African society that McCall Smith portrays so eloquently in these books is one in which a certain formality and ceremoniousness of manners still exists, which come as a great and instant relief to people who live in societies that are altogether without them. Not only do the ceremoniousness and formality help to smooth the rough edges of social interaction, but they allow some grading of such interaction, according to degrees of desired or achieved intimacy. Formality, moreover, is the precondition of subtlety and even of irony; without formality, life becomes coarse-grained and crude. The distinction between friendliness and friendship becomes blurred so that it is no longer even perceived.
In any case, it is only in the condescending imagination of egalitarian intellectuals that poor people, or people of low social class, are always rough-hewn and informal. There are few countries in the world poorer than Tanzania, yet when I lived there I was most struck by the exquisite, formal manners of the vast majority of Tanzanians, in shameful contrast to those of the much richer expatriates (including my own).
The idea that the manners of the working classes of industrialized societies were always informal and nothing else, and that there is something laudably democratic and egalitarian about informality, is mistaken. When, at the beginning of my career, I worked in a poor area of the East End of London, I found that there were old men and women who addressed and referred to their own spouses as Mr. Smith or Mrs. Jones, and never by their first names. They were ceremonious in other ways too. You could be sure that couples that addressed and referred to one another so formally had lived happily together for many years, on terms of the greatest mutual respect, and with the most intense affection, despite having often experienced the greatest hardship. Their manners were never rough.
In the British North and Midlands, I discovered also that there were many married couples of the same kind who referred to each other as Mother and Father (but never by the diminutives of these terms). The poverty that they had experienced, much worse than anything to be found today, was no barrier to the refinement of their speech and manner.
My father would no doubt have said that their innermost decency was the origin of their habitual good manners; my mother would have put it the other way round, that their innermost decency was the result of their habitual good manners. Without going quite so far as that, I think daily interactions are likely to be more pleasant in a society in which a degree of formality is required and admired than in one in which formality has been abandoned for ideological reasons. And, after all, small interactions are, within quite wide limits, what determine the quality of our lives.
Theodore Dalrymple is a British doctor. He is contributing editor of the City Journal and Dietrich Weismann fellow of the Manhattan Institute. His latest book is Our Culture, What’s Left of It.
My father wasn't too strict on manners (or maybe I got them instilled quickly), but whenever I left an elevator before a woman (even I was closer to the exit), he would grab me by the collar and pull me back.
To this day, if I exit an elevator before a woman, even if it's the only way she can get out, I get a choking sensation.
manners in my mothers sense were but etiquette and that in turn etiquette was but a code by which the elite distinguished itself from hoi polloi in order to maintain its economic and cultural dominance
Actually it's the middle class which traditionally had the best manners. The upper class was often just as rude and vulgar as the lower class.
The decline of manners is a symptom of the increasing selfishness and lack of respect for others evident in society.
Many years ago, Ann Landers, I recall wrote something of what I very much agree: Good manners are the traffic lights in a civil society. These keep us from crashing into each other. Good article. Thank you for posting it.
Don't know this from personal experience, but I have read that if a woman tries to exit an elevator first in Japan, she risks being trampled by the men who expect her to wait till after them. Also that women drivers yield to men srivers at stop signs. Interesting, no?
Nice article, neverdem. Maybe a lost cause, but still a worthwhile one.
Not only do the ceremoniousness and formality help to smooth the rough edges of social interaction, but they allow some grading of such interaction, according to degrees of desired or achieved intimacy. Formality, moreover, is the precondition of subtlety and even of irony; without formality, life becomes coarse-grained and crude. The distinction between friendliness and friendship becomes blurred so that it is no longer even perceived.
Yes. Wow. So true. I went through my "egalitarian bratty slob" phase and nothing snapped me out of it faster than becoming a teacher in an inner-city middle school. Seeing how repulsive crudity really is straightened my spine immediately.
Egalitarians who wish for a 'classless' society are getting it. Just not the kind of 'classless' they were hoping for.
Worthy of framing.
Some very wise observations from Dr.Dalrymple (my favorite psychiatrist!) Good manners are not just superficial, pro forma behaviour. They are an essential part of the glue that makes a society a CIVIL society and part of a larger civilization. They presuppose mutual respect. By the way, when Dalrymple referred to the decline of good manners in Britain this dreadful state of affairs is described in his book "Life at the Bottom". Sadly, I think we're heading in the same direction. Rudeness, incivility, and lack of respect for persons, property, and authority have permeated our society. I think it's sort of like the frog put into the pot of warm water while the temperature is gradually increased. By the time the water boils it's too late. So we have become so gradually vulgarized and calloused that we don't realize what's happened to our own culture.
Well put. The problem now is that fewer and fewer people even understand that they are doing anything wrong when they behave like primitives. It is amazing to me how little time it took for public behavior to degenerate to its present level.
I have worked very hard to get my son to realize that manners are tools in his toolbox of skills that will help him for the rest of his life. I often remind him that something simple like knowing which fork to use during a formal dinner could determine the outcome of getting a job or a contract. When I'm not around, he opens the doors for his mother and other ladies (he might realize how this could be useful for future dates...)
This article covers quite a bit of the subversive nature of the Left. What also could have been mentioned is that the Left has convinced generations that following traditions is silly and conformist. Somehow, if you do what your parents did, you aren't an individual- this is how they get people to NO LONGER honor their parents or tradition. If children can be convinced to not be like their parents, they'll have to let go of manners, because their parents had manners and social etiquette. I believe this has been part of the modus operandi of the Left to get to the egalitarian utopia they so desire.
That's my rant for the night. Thanks for reading.
Ill-mannered ... or cool?
and others don't.
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Good article. My father and mother believed in good manners. Sometimes I think they took it too far, such as when we ate. My dad insisted that the left hand remained in your lap with your napkin unless you were cutting something. To this day I eat with my left hand on my lap. If he saw that hand was up for no reason he would poke it with his fork. Your elbow , he would really start poking. I think good manners are a great asset and it is a shame more people dont use them.
Typical pommie bahstahd. Not the full quid.
she is almost turned completely around before she puts them on my desk with her back to me.
i think i pissed her off when she ask me why i always said thank you when people put work on my desk???
i told her for the same reason others don't... it's the way i was raised.
that's when it started... and someday, she's going to fall down doing it, and hurt a goodly part of her 300+lb azz!!!
We must not forget the 'contribution' to ill mannered behavior from NOW feminist types and the repercussions males have had to endure.
Young men are indoctrinated in schools to treat women as equals, the courteous behavior of opening a door for a woman is a dilemma. If he holds the door open will he be berated by a feminist screaming at him because she is his equal, or will he be thanked for being a gentleman?
Very interesting article thanks for posting, neverdem.
"The upper class was often just as rude and vulgar as the lower class."
Oh I don't know. I was raised in the south (Nashville) and most everyone was polite. The reason? You might get one upside the head, or worse, if you were rude, especially to a woman. I don't think that's true now though after forty years of Marxist conditioning.
Some young people now don't think there are any consequences for their actions and they can say or do anything that strikes their fancy. Wonder where they got that idea.