Though always a bumptious people in terms of our politics — students of history, for example, find that the bitter battles during the administration of John Adams far surpass, in terms of strong language and pilloried reputations, our modem skirmishes — we Americans have allowed this tendency toward name-calling and ad hominem attacks to slip into nearly every area of our daily lives. We have become a bumper-sticker nation with bumper-sticker minds. To speak for or against any social issue of the day — gay rights, abortion, illegal immigration, the war on terror or any of a dozen lesser causes — is to be instantly labeled “liberal” or “conservative,” brilliant or foolish, depending on which side the observer stands.
In terms of its moral values, our nation is no longer united by a common faith (however poorly practiced) or by civic virtue. The one common value we generally do espouse is tolerance, but the last four decades have degraded the original meaning of that word nearly beyond recognition. To liberals and conservatives, tolerance these days means “I’m an open-minded person as long as you see things my way.” We twist and pull at tolerance, shaping it until it fits what we believe should be tolerated, thereby making a vice of a virtue.
Such shenanigans lead us down strange and thorny pathways. The man who advocates choice in terms of abortion may be the same man who advocates government banning of cigarette smoking in all restaurants, thereby depriving both patrons and restaurant owners of any choice at all in the matter. In other words, this good-hearted fellow is for choice as long as he isn’t offended by the choice others may make.
With tolerance — which, keep in mind, has absolutely nothing to do with acceptance — becoming more and more meaningless in its service as our guiding national beacon, Americans will need to find other grounds for unity other adhesives to bind ourselves together as a common people. In light of our sprawling society and its enormous diversity of race, religion, and wealth, some observers despair of finding such a glue. Rodney King, the black man whose beating by L.A. police sparked riots and mayhem, once asked the now-famous question; “Why can’t we all just get along?” Whatever we may think of Mr. King, his question was a valid one. Why can’t we all just get along?
Perhaps we can. Perhaps one way to get along would be for all of us to practice civility toward one another, civility as manners in the broadest sense of that word. The Ancient Chinese practiced both public and private civility by following the philosophy of Confucius, whose ideas regarding the home, the society, and the governance of that society were based on a code of formal manners. One hundred years ago, George Bernard Shaw and G.K. Chesterton, two men with diametrically opposed points of view on nearly every imaginable subject, engaged each other in friendly — and witty — public, debate numerous times, leaving it to their listeners to decide who was right. Both men had sense enough to treat each other civilly. Perhaps it is time for Americans to develop a similar code for behavior and manners.
Imagine an America in which politicians approached one another and their constituents with respect — not with a fawning respect but with a full regard for their human personhood. Imagine an America in which we all treated those weaker than ourselves with this same regard. Imagine an America in which we practiced true tolerance, a land where we didn’t run to a lawyer or the government for support the way we used to run to our mommies, but instead clearly and calmly debated opponents. Imagine an America where we didn’t smear individuals or groups with outrageous labels and lies.
In Modern Manners: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Social Graces (ISBN 1-58816-454-3, $17.95), editor Thomas P. Farley has culled 39 essays from Town and Country magazine’s “Social Graces” column. These columnists present viewpoints that support, directly or indirectly, the importance of civility in modern life.
Some of the writers in this collection — Jamie Lee Curtis, Peggy Noonan, Charles Osgood, Andy Rooney, and others — are public figures, celebrities familiar to us from television or magazines. Others are not so well known. But whether it is Janet Carlson Freed describing the destructiveness of spousal rudeness or David Brown proclaiming in the wake of the attacks on Sept. 11 civility as our greatest defense, all of these writers recognize the practice of manners, meaning essentially the public show of respect for our fellow human beings, as an essential ingredient for the survival of any society.
The best essays in this volume are those that address a general theme. Jill Kargman’s “The Retuen of Gallantry,” for example, traces the boorishness of male manners in the last 30 years, ill behavior inspired in part by the confined roles of men and women during the 1970s and 1980s. Kargman ends on an optimistic note regarding a return of male manners and gallantry in our society, writing in conclusion: “Memo to men: Nice guys finish first.”
Another article that particularly struck home for me was Letitia Baldrige’s “The Art of Listening.” Surrounded by the noise of cell phones and music from a dozen sources, taught by television, the food industry, and the Internet that speed is a virtue, many of us have lost the art of actually listening to another person. Political pundits and talk-show hosts seem physically incapable of listening; they’re too busy plotting their next attack to hear what their opponent or even a guest has to say. Baldrige reminds us that listening is an art, and that we need to practice it to become good at it.
Parts of Modern Manners won’t appeal to all people There are essays on how to treat the beach house you’ve rented for the summer or how to handle the nanny — this is Town and Country, after all. For the most part, however, this book and others like it should remind us that a practiced civility may be the best hope for the preservation of our culture and country.
(Jeff Minick is a writer and teacher.)