Monday, November 21, 2005

A Victorian Perspective on Manners

In "iPod's Missed Manners", George Will laments how technology seems to be affecting how people behave in public.
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.
And I don't mean to diminish that thesis, as I agree that some people are oblivious to how their public use of technology affects others. It's a bit overstated to speak only to electronic gadgets - George Will's fear of stumbling across somebody who is watching pornography on an iPod is duly noted, but historically that same person could as easily have been looking at printed pornography. And yes, it is annoying when you are stuck on a bus with a person who has the volume on her music player so loud that you can discern the lyrics, but people can also infringe upon your personal space while reading a newspaper, block you from taking a seat by placing a bag or stack of books next to themselves, and can interfere with your quiet enjoyment by singing. Technology isn't the problem.

Will mentions the fact that some parents object to being told that they need to control their kids in public, or that somebody else might tell their kids how to behave. That's unquestionably true - and pretty much anybody in food service is likely to be able to share horror stories. Will writes,
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.
With all due respect, Will is referencing something other than modernity, although for once he didn't use the "l" word to describe the type of person he intends to describe. (Perhaps that's because if his earlier silliness, that liberals see calls for rigid conformity to grammar rules as fascistic, while conservatives view it as a fight against anarchy. Or perhaps it's because he has encountered "conservative" parents who are raising unruly kids.) If I were asked to identify the person in the nation who best exemplifies "people who will not stand to be corrected in any way", the person who first comes to mind is President Bush.

As for holding doors open for people? I've done that my whole life, without once being lectured. (Although I do sometimes experience the thought, "A thank you would be nice.") I think he should check the date on that particular canard - it's past its shelf life. (Or does Will cling to it as an excuse for not getting the door?)

Why do I reference Will's column as a Victorian perspective on manners? Because much of Victorian "polite society" involved rules for behavior in public, while turning a blind eye to what was happening behind closed doors. Will's similar focus on public conduct ignores how private conduct also shapes manners, and permits him to impeach the manners of others without taking a hard look in the mirror. His columns, to put it mildly, cannot always be described as contributing to polite discourse.

As a knee-jerk reactionary blogger, I make no claim that editorials should adhere to a polite and respectful tone. (Well, maybe they should, but the other way can be more cathartic.) I do think, though, that the conduct of columnists such as Will contributes to the manner of public debate, and that he should thus consider his own contribution when lamenting how impolite the world has become.


  1. A "thoroughly modern parent"? I thought 'love the sinner, hate the sin' wasn't all that modern.

  2. Yes, certainly, his reasoning invites the notion that we should not look beyond the sin when assessing character, even of a child. Perhaps he's having flashbacks to when he was caught stealing a cookie as a child, and figures, "I was morally judged as a child, and I turned out okay."

    Is Will a parent?

  3. Actually he does attribute a laid-back attitude towards punctuation to a "liberal sensibility," implying that if you don't like Truss's comments about punctuation, then you'll regard her as a fascist.

    And I'd argue that his anti-NBA rant not only has an anti-black sentiment, but that the anti-black sentiment is tinged by his attitudes towards what he would call "liberalism."

    Sorry, that column really annoyed me and I had to rant....

  4. Well yes, you could infer racial sentiments into his comments on the dress of basketball players. You could instead infer an attitude of "If I'm not comfortable with it, it's not 'polite'" form of elitism. Either way, it does seem to boil down to "Woe to the evil liberals who are 'elitist' toward the 'red states', but it's just fine to sneer at the populations of the inner cities."


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