Civility is Not Reciprocal: Why We Must be Courteous to Those Who Aren't
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I was raised on the wisdom of Judith Martin, better known to millions as “Miss Manners.” My family had a fairly keen sense of etiquette, but Martin’s guidebooks were often used to settle disputes when they (ever so gently) arose. Martin is 82, but with some help, still writes a column in the Washington Post.
On November 19, Miss Manners was asked about social ostracism and cancel culture. In response to the reader’s query, Martin notes that “excluding people whom one — or society — considers reprehensible is etiquette’s chief form of defense (other than setting an example of courtesy in the face of rudeness, which doesn’t always have noticeable results).” The parentheses disguise a vital point about civility, and I blame editors for what I suspect was a substantial rewrite of what Miss Manners had said. (I have no evidence for that, but I’ve been reading Martin for nearly 40 years, and the sentence struck me as out of character for her).
In my previous post in this series, I made the case that civility is a way of living in a world where the great moral and political questions will always remain irreconcilable. Civility is radically pragmatic, certain that there will never be a culture where everyone agrees on the great questions, such as what it means to be free, or to be just, or to be good. Civility is how we live with people whose views scandalize and horrify us, because we know that we can never conform the world to our own moral or scientific suppositions. It’s either civility, or it’s unending civil war.
Just as civility assumes that consensus on the great questions will always elude us, it also rejects the idea that good manners should be based on reciprocity. Martin’s column posits two options. The first is to cut off the reprehensible, the second to display continued courtesy in the face of rudeness. The latter, Miss Manners concedes, “doesn’t always have noticeable results.” That’s true, of course, but too easy -- very few tactics are guaranteed to always have “noticeable results,” unless you plan to go about bashing every offensive person you meet in the head – and those results will not be to your liking.
Cutting off those whose conduct is offensive always has a noticeable result in one sense – if you don’t see or speak to those who upset you any longer, then you will notice their absence from your life. If the goal of civility is primarily to arrange your life so you are neither challenged nor offended, and surrounded only by those to whom it is easy to be civil, then ostracism is an excellent self-defense mechanism. It will not have any discernible impact on the person whom you ostracize, other than making them far more likely to harden their position. Hillary Clinton may have been misquoted when she referred to some Trump supporters as “deplorables,” but one thing was clear: no Trump supporter felt ashamed as a consequence and repented.
Shunning and ostracism provide emotional satisfaction to the shunner, but tend to breed defiance and bitterness in the shunned.
My grandmother made it very clear that civility did not rest upon reciprocity. The lesson we got growing up was clear: “You can tell a gentleman by his manners, but if he is only well-mannered with the well-mannered, then he is in fact not a gentleman.” Courtesy as a word may derive from a medieval word used to describe how nobles were supposed to treat each other in a royal court, but by the 19th century, American WASPs had broadened and democratized it, making it into a civic religion to be practiced towards all.
We were raised on the apocryphal story of Queen Victoria at table: when an ill-instructed guest drank from his finger bowl, to the amusement of the better-bred, Her Majesty sipped from her finger bowl as well. The lesson of the fable was clear: manners weren’t designed to signal your breeding to those raised with your same values, they were to make everyone feel comfortable. If necessary, you adapted on the fly to ensure that no one felt excluded or ashamed. When in Rome, do as the Romans do; if you are a Roman matron and a barbarian comes into your home and does not know how the Romans do, you ensure that he feels welcome anyway.
The men in my family got a very clear message about civility and women. My cousin Wolfgang, a German-Mexican industrialist who embodied the apotheosis of good manners and charm, gave many teen boys his version of “the talk.” “You will hear a great lie,” he told us: “that you should only respect women who respect themselves. That is dangerous nonsense. You will respect every woman, even if your friends think she has no self-respect. You will treat every woman with the same courtesy, because your courtesy is about you, not her.” He elaborated with a brief but very clear explanation about what sort of clothes different women wore – or that the same woman might wear on different occasions. “A bare body may or may not be an invitation to something delightful, but it is never an invitation to discourteousness.”
An insistence on never abandoning his manners didn’t mean that a gentleman couldn’t have a good time with the ladies, as Wolfgang explained with a beam and a twinkle. It meant that he did not cease to be a gentleman while having it. “Good manners will take you everywhere, Hugo, and I do mean everywhere.”
Miss Manners wavers on whether it’s important for manners to set an example in the face of rudeness, worried that it may not have discernible result. I choose to conclude that Miss Manners has had a hard year, and had a momentary flash of doubt that will soon pass. Civility to the rude, the disagreeable, and even the dangerous may not produce an instant result, but it may well produce a result down the line. If we think of our friends who have fallen into Trumpism and conspiracy theories as suffering from a grand delusion, we want to make sure that they feel comfortable returning to us when (and if) they come to their senses. If we shun them, their pride may make the delusion persist rather than weaken. They may sneer at our warmth and our gentleness in the face of their bizarre and unpleasant pronouncements, but they will remember it. Civility is often about planting seeds that one may never get a chance to see blossom.
Civility is pragmatic, because it knows that sometimes it is the “least worst” option we have, the last thing holding us back from open violence. Civility is deeply hopeful, because it trusts that it can soften even the most hardened heart, even if that softening takes place in a way that we will not live to witness. Civility is, in the end, as much about us as it is about other people. For those of us who have no Christ or Torah on which to stand, it is the closest thing we have to a code that guides our steps when all seems lost. We are not just civil because it changes others, we are civil because to cease to be so would be to lose ourselves.
(I realize I’ve used civility, courtesy, etiquette and manners as if they are all interchangeable synonyms. There are subtle distinctions that might be worth exploring in a future newsletter.)