Why is a post about manners in my public policy category? Read on a little and I think you’ll agree it’s appropriate. The definition in the graphic above is from the Cambridge online dictionary, A search online reveals many other definitions, but let’s face it, we all know what the meaning is, right? At least from my generation it was fairly clear. Much of the concept had to be taught, because as toddlers struggling with learning to communicate, our instincts don’t tell us how to behave with other people. Manners are in fact just social and cultural norms, expected behavior in whichever social environment in which we live. Okay, back to the public policy issue. I posit that the majority of our social problems today are a result of just plain bad manners and our willingness to not only tolerate them, but to implicitly support them.
Historically, most non-criminal anti-social behavior has been moderated with social ostracism. When were were young we were taught what was acceptable and wasn’t. If we strayed too far repeatedly, we quickly learned that we wouldn’t be accepted in the social groups with whom we wanted to belong. If after being taught right from wrong, we intentionally disregarded those time tested modalities of correction, some of us were subjected to punishment in various forms – not only in our family lives, but in our scholls and churches. These were easy fixes and for the most part, it has worked throughout modern civilization. Until now.
Think about what we witness in videos, television, social media, etc. While many of us strive to maintain a little civility, it is becoming more common to see it completely disappear in those venues. You can scarcely find a single subject shared on social media that doesn’t invite one or more trolls to spew their venom about it. It need not even be controversial. Television news is now dominated by the widely accepted model of panel discussions, which the networks use to suggest fairness and objectivity. We all know what it’s really for. To stoke up controversy, which in turn stokes up more controversy. This is why the panelists are carefully selected to provoke such behavior. It is a rare thing indeed to find a civil discussion on these panel shows. The exceptions to this are generally found on the Sunday morning news interview/panel shows about politics and economics. The prime time and evening shows are dominated with relentless verbal shouting matches spewing hatred. Apparently, civility doesn’t create high ratings, which in turn yields low ad revenue, which in turn ensures it is not duplicated.
The amount of vitriol I find on social media is even worse. Some platforms are worse than others. If you think what you see on Facebook is bad, Twitter is even worse. But it descends even further on YouTube, Reddit, and other lesser known platforms. It seems that vulgarity is now considered socially acceptable. I see it all the time, and while I don’t like it in public discourse, I’ve become somewhat numbed by it through the sheer volume of its use. I can’t remember the last time I was able to run through my Facebook feed without finding the F-word. I’m all for free speech and all, but I’m also for good manners and social behavior. Yes, I find public vulgarity offensive and impolite. I guess that makes me just a stodgy old man, unwilling to adjust to the evolution of social norms. Yep. Guilty. That is not to say, I don’t let if fly myself sometimes, but certainly never in public forums or settings. And I also believe vulgar language can be acceptable in certain forums, like literature, films, comedy, etc., but even then it should be tempered.
How did all this happen? When I see something that launches a vile thought, I try to let my conscience and early learning guide me toward more polite behavior. Instead of getting out of the car and telling the guy in front of me to &*#$ off, I simply keep it to myself, grumble, and move on. Now we seem to be emboldened by discovering others with those vile thoughts, and we can share it with anonymity with someone across the globe, without having to endure scorn by the public. And let us not forget what happens when we choose to ignore what we learned. If I did let out my feelings by accosting a stranger with a string of foul cuss words, violence is much more likely to occur. It begins with disagreement. Disagreement breeds anger. Anger breeds hatefulness. Hatefulness breeds violence. No good can come of this.
And then there are the ad-hominem attacks rendered toward others. It happens everywhere and everyday. There is no public venue that is immune to it. Senators and congressmen calling each other names, questioning their motives, and slandering one another on a daily basis. Oh how I long for the days when people like William F. Buckley, Jr. could accomplish their criticism without resorting to childish name calling. Of course, now everyone has a public forum and it seems that since most people lack the intellect to criticize without logical fallacies, filthy language, and name calling, they simply toss it out there for the world to see just how pathetic they are. How did this happen?
It’s become a bit of a competition really. In an effort to gain notoriety over others and rise above the noise, the method of choice is to be more edgy than the last person. This is why we see actresses holding the severed heads of the president. Unfortunately, that kind of behavior is rewarded with notoriety and it entices the next person to try to outdo the last. Fame and attention used to be reserved for those that earned it, often arriving with respect. Now, it’s acceptable to be as depraved as possible to gain that all important 15 minutes of fame. It’s just a notch above serial killing in my view.
Aside from the negativity it engenders, it has other sinister implications. Words are evolving so fast, that we can’t keep up with them. Words like Nazi, Fascist, Racist, etc, have become so diluted that they have lost all meaning. This is not good. We need words like those to bring attention to them when they occur. Unfortunately, they are so casually used to describe someone with whom we disagree that they actually mean nothing at all. Racism actually exists, but we can no longer bring attention to it because we simply roll our eyes every time the word is used and there is not a suitable word to replace it. This is not a good trend.
Finally, there are the speech police, a particularly pernicious subcategory of the political correctness movement. There is much irony in this movement to be sure. Consider why certain words are now considered to be socially unacceptable, particularly ones that were actually never used with bad intent. What is the purpose of banning these words or stopping things like cultural appropriation? Why, it’s so that you won’t offend someone. And when you offend someone, are you are practicing bad manners. So, the social justice activists that are accusing others of using inappropriate words, are actually accusing them of bad manners. And how are they doing that? By calling them racists, Nazis, and Fascists and often accompanied with a flurry of foul language and in some cases violent behavior. I guess we’ll soon have to redefine irony, won’t we?
One thing is for sure, we are never likely to accuse the practitioners of vitriol, contempt, and hostility of using good manners. Nor will we ever look back on them and think of them as intellectual giants. There’s probably nothing we can do about this trend except hope that it dies along with other social trends. I don’t see this happening anytime soon. Funny though, we could actually heal so many of our social ills by cleaning up our public discourse and simply being more polite and civil to one another. Just an old fashioned dream I guess.
The immortal words of Woodrow Call, “I hate rude behavior” more or less sums up my feelings about it all. A lesson in manners portrayed in the best western movie ever made.