Some day I’d like to write at length about the connection of manners, our everyday behavior, to morals, our transcendental convictions about good and evil. The two are not quite the same thing, but almost: it’s possible to have rude saints and exquisitely polite human monsters, but in mass, in the aggregate, manners and morals are surely causally related. And the causality, I’d wager, works both ways: bad manners ultimately lead to a confusion of morality, and immorality (or amorality) makes good manners, properly understood, impossible.
If Hitler was kind to his secretaries, he was a bully-boy to those who opposed him. The first rule of proper manners, as we learn from Pygmalion’s Henry Higgins, is that they can’t be selectively applied:
The great secret, Eliza, is not having bad manners or good manners or any other particular sort of manners, but having the same manner for all human souls: in short, behaving as if you were in Heaven, where there are no third-class carriages, and one soul is as good as another.
George Will, who gives the word “stuffy” a bad name, has written on the subject of “Civility and Civilization.” I don’t disagree with his premise, which is similar to what I sketched out above. Will believes, as do all conservatives of a certain stripe, that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and that manners today are decaying in the same way as morality.
With everyone chatting on cell phones when not floating in iPod-land, “this is an age of social autism, in which people just can’t see the value of imagining their impact on others.” We are entertaining ourselves into inanition. (There are Web sites for people with Internet addiction. Think about that.) And multiplying technologies of portable entertainments will enable “limitless self-absorption,” which will make people solipsistic, inconsiderate and antisocial. Hence manners are becoming unmannerly in this “age of lazy moral relativism combined with aggressive social insolence.”
The quotes are from someone named Lynn Truss, who has written a book on the subject. Is she right? Are we entering an age of social autism, in which individuals will connect only in indifference or rage?
Who knows? All I can report is what I see with my own eyes. And the people I see, day in and day out, are mostly hard-working, good neighbors, almost too good as parents (in terms of the time invested in endless sporting activities), friendly, tolerant, and polite to a fault. They aren’t perfect, true. All of these virtues are unevenly distributed, as is ever the case with the human race – and one or two people of my acquaintance may qualify as a pain in the butt.
But in my corner of Virginia at least, good manners are expected and usually received.
Could life be that much nastier in the offices of the WaPo and ABC News, where Will works? One wonders.