November 20, 2005
Civility and Civilization
-- Let's be good cosmopolitans and offer sociological explanations
rather than moral judgments about students, The Washington
Post reports, having sex during the day in high schools.
Sociology discerns connections, and there may be one between the
fact that teenagers are relaxing from academic rigors by enjoying
sex in the school auditorium, and the fact that Americans in public
soon will be able to watch pornography, and prime-time television
programs such as ``Desperate Housewives'' -- and, for the high-minded,
C-SPAN -- on their cell phones and video iPods.
is this: Many people have no notion of propriety when in the presence
of other people, because they are not actually in the presence
of other people, even when they are in public.
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 anti-social.
Hence manners are becoming unmannerly in this ``age of lazy moral
relativism combined with aggressive social insolence."
So says Lynne Truss
in her latest trumpet-blast of a book, ``Talk to the Hand: The
Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons
to Stay Home and Bolt the Door." Her previous wail of despair
was ``Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to
Punctuation," which established her as -- depending on your
sensibility -- a comma and apostrophe fascist (the liberal sensibility)
or a plucky constable combating anarchy (the conservative sensibility).
she says, is analogous to good manners because it treats readers
with respect. ``All the important rules," she writes, ``surely
boil down to one: remember you are with other people; show
some consideration." Manners, which have been called
``quotidian ethics," arise from real or -- this, too, is
important in lubricating social frictions -- feigned empathy.
says Truss, ``are happier when they have some idea of where they
stand and what the rules are." But today's entitlement mentality,
which is both a cause and a consequence of the welfare state,
manifests itself in the attitude that it is all right to do whatever
one has a right to do. Which is why acrimony has enveloped a coffee
shop on Chicago's affluent North Side, where the proprietor posted
a notice that children must ``behave and use their indoor voices."
The proprietor, battling what he calls an ``epidemic" of
anti-social behavior, told The New York Times that parents
protesting his notice ``have a very strong sense of entitlement."
A thoroughly modern
parent, believing that children must be protected from feelings
injurious to self-esteem, says: ``Johnny, the fact that you did
something bad does not mean you are bad for doing it." We
have, Truss thinks, ``created people who will not stand to be
corrected in any way." Furthermore, it is a brave, or foolhardy,
man who shows traditional manners toward women. In today's world
of ``hair-trigger sensitivity," to open a door for a woman
is to play what Truss calls Gallantry Russian Roulette: You risk
a high-decibel lecture on gender politics.
One writer on manners
has argued that a nation's greatness is measured not only by obedience
of laws but also by ``obedience to the unenforceable." But
enforcement of manners can be necessary. The well-named David
Stern, commissioner of the NBA, recently decreed a dress code
for players. It is politeness to the league's customers who, weary
of seeing players dressed in ``edgy" hip-hop ``street"
or ``gangsta" styles, want to be able to distinguish the
Bucks and Knicks from the Bloods and Crips. Stern also understands
that players who wear ``in your face" clothes of a kind,
and in a manner, that evokes Sing Sing more than Brooks Brothers
might be more inclined to fight on the floor and to allow fights
to migrate to the stands, as happened last year.
Because manners are
means of extending respect, especially to strangers, this question
arises: Do manners and virtue go together? Truss thinks so, in
spite of the possibility of ``blood-stained dictators who had
exquisite table manners and never used their mobile phones in
a crowded train compartment to order mass executions."
are the practice of a virtue. The virtue is called civility, a
word related -- as a foundation is related to a house -- to the
2005, Washington Post Writers Group