A few years ago I was riding from terminal to terminal on an airport bus in Texas. By the time I climbed on board, the bus had standing room only. I was hanging on a strap, keeping my hand luggage in place between my knees, and happened to be hovering above a seated young Texan. He rose automatically to give me his seat, but I smilingly declined the offer.
I shall never forget the look of frustrated gallantry on the young Texan’s face as he looked up at me, swinging one-handed by the overhead strap as the bus swerved and rounded a corner. There were sweat beads on his upper lip. He looked as if I had put him in pain, physically.
In recent years, we have been taught that chivalrous manners are an instrument in “the system” that leaves women open to being controlled by men. Along the same lines, we’ve been told that good manners are instruments in the subordination of the powerless by the powerful.
I knew an American girl from a minority group who took that message quite literally. She was invited to dinner at the London home of English acquaintances. The dinner turned out a social ordeal by which she felt subtly put down. After dinner, she repaired to their bathroom where she lingered for an inordinate length of time.
“I threw up your food,” she told her hosts, when she finally emerged.
“Oh,” they said. “Didn’t it agree with you? We’re so sorry!”
“It agreed with me fine. I put my fingers down my throat.”
That’s one dinner they won’t soon forget.
What happened here? Was she being courageous and outspoken, or just rude? Are we – who would never go that far in that situation — courteous or just cowardly?
When I lived in Australia, my then husband’s philosophy department saw the visit of an English philosopher, whose residence, back in the Mother Country, was Peterhouse, a college of the University of Cambridge. Among other traits for which it is reputed, Peterhouse is known as a residence for antisemites. Have I mentioned here that I am Jewish? Anyway, since there was to be a dinner in honor of a guest of the philosophy department. it was normal for me, the wife of a colleague and a colleague in my own right, to join the dinner party.
It did not take our British guest long to start baiting me, masking his rudeness behind a pretend-convivial, toothy smile. (There are smiles and smiles. This wasn’t a nice one.) I would have liked to point out to the philosopher from Peterhouse that he had managed to be
- ungrateful to his hosts,
- ungallant to a woman,
- uncivil to a colleague,
and that this triple-hitter set quite a record. But I didn’t because, in this complex social situation, I felt that it would not be polite on my part.
I think, if it happened today, I would point it out. It’s not rude to tell a person that he’s being rude. In this case, it was just a fact. A fact of social life.
Aristotle says that the right act has precision about it, like an arrow hitting its target at dead center. What is the right act for a persecuted person? It might be an act that defies the norms.
A young woman friend of mine, who was looking for housing, once found herself in the room of a young man who had lured her there on the pretext that he wanted to rent it. As soon as she was inside his room, he locked the door and announced that he was going to rape her.
What to do? My friend walked over to his window and punched a hole in the glass. He was so shocked by the damage to his room, and by her bleeding arm, that he turned into anxious nurse, running up with towels to staunch her wounds and quite happy to see her leave his room.
Clearly her act had been exactly right. The arrow hit the bullseye that time. How did she do it? She’d been in desperate straits before, so she could recognize the new situation and adjust to it instantly.
Why wasn’t her action rude? Because he’d abandoned the reciprocities of social life. He’d put himself and herself back in the state of nature, the “war of all against all,” that Thomas Hobbes describes. She acted just as uncivilly as he did. That told him that she recognized his return to the primal life-and-death-struggle and that she was at least as desperate as he was. Had he been more desperate, her action would not have succeeded. But he was on the border of civil life, not wanting to get caught, not without other instincts, not yet completely over the line. So she’d read him right and saved them both.
I don’t know exactly what the young friend from the minority group should have done about the London dinner party, but I do think her action was excessive in the circumstances. The arrow did not just hit the target. It blew up the target, which is a different thing — not so precise.
What is discourtesy? What is rudenesss? It’s a means to break down civil life, with its reciprocities, which are kept in place by the framework of laws, virtues, social patterns and kindly feelings. Once all that is broken down, you have the “war of all against all,” which ends in tyranny — the rule of the stronger. These are not mere philosophical abstractions. They are the cumulative evidence of human history. Either you have civil life or you have tyranny.
That being the deliverance of macro-history and recent experience, I want to start a Political Movement. Start it right here, without a membership roster, dues, elected leaders or a governing charter. Every woman to be her own group member. Every man likewise.
What name shall I give the movement? It’s the movement to
BRING BACK GOOD MANNERS.
Up till now, I have deliberately avoided political topics in these columns, because they are divisive. But this is different. You don’t need to align with anything or sign anything. You don’t need to wait for a critical mass of members. You don’t need to know which fork to use. (Those are rules, not manners.) You don’t need to profess any particular belief system. You don’t need to draw allies or exclude opponents. Any person can belong. Anyone can contribute to perfecting this movement, by figuring out how to behave in different situations. How to be effective yet courteous. If you write in with your experiences and/or ideas, they’ll be posted here with pleasure and appreciation.
Here are some of the advantages of joining this movement:
It’s empowering. It protects privacy. It discourages public vulgarity and obscenity, both of which intrude on private sensibilities. It’s sincere – not hypocritical or pretentious. It excludes ad hominem argument and name calling. It shows infinite respect for The Other, but not at the expense of Number One. It encourages the idealization of women, men, and other denominatons of various kinds. It’s sensitive to the feelings of others, but not all gushy. It doesn’t hog the stage. It protects dissenters from ostracism and majorities from the temptation of bullying. It leaves room for aspiration but excludes the taking of unfair advantage. It celebrates adulthood and discourages silly kid stuff, unless the kid stuff is by common consent and mutually playful.
Ladies, gentlemen, I’m launching the movement to BRING BACK GOOD MANNERS herewith. You are present at the creation. Consider yourselves fortunate!
That’s the sound of the champagne bottle being cracked over the bow. The ship has been christened!