More on Manners and Customs

Some more issues on the issue of Manners and Customs.

  • The issue of enforcement.  Disobedience to Manners is enforced, let it be said, by discrimination and exclusion.  Sometimes the person is explicitly told why he is excluded; sometimes he is not, only facing a mysterious curse of not being hired or not being paid attention to or not being included, and he has to figure it out for himself.  But the enforcement of Manners depends on the sphere of Property Ownership and Business, which gives us a basis to enforce Manners; and in a modern society [unless gun ownership is universal!] that sphere depends on the State to enforce its rights of exclusion.  In modern times the State has occasionally moved beyond forbidding discrimination and creating protected categories of innate characteristics like race, gender, sexual orientation, and the like, to creating behavioral-protected categories like sexual behavior, bodily behaviors like abortion and transgender fixing, and some forms of handicap.  Private discrimination remains the main way of enforcing ‘political correctness’ and ‘improper’ speech, however, in the U.S.  It is not at all true that Jesus never excluded anyone.  His images of ultimate exclusion are the most vivid in the New Testament except for the Lake of Fire in Revelation.  But His exclusion is not the exclusion of the world, and His inclusion is not the inclusion of the world.

  • The nature of Manners.  Manners, like moral virtue, I think, can be classified by Virtue Manners, Rule Manners, and probably Consequential Manners.  [Remember, the difference between the two is that Morals are absolute, and Manners are culturally relative.]  Books on Manners generally specialize in Rules:  long lists of Don’ts plus some Do’s, like, ‘write your thank you notes’ and ‘dress for the occasion’.  But, no more than moral Rules, can these be properly carried out without the Manners’ counterpart of Virtues.  People are very judgmental about things like body language and tone, which cannot simply be willed.  The virtue of Kindness is one that fits in both Morals and Manners.  Christians, however, have a tendency to mistake general ‘niceness’ for the Fruits of the Spirit; they are not the same.

On the other hand, Manners need Rules as well as Virtues.  On the university campus, and to some extent in the corporate world, we seem to be experimenting with a system in which everyone [with the possible exception of white males] gets to define their own code of how they are to be dealt with and treated.  This will not work.  Anyone can get teed off by anything.  I can get teed off by fresh tomatoes in my salad or whipped cream on my ice cream.  So Manners must say, “About this you have a reasonable complaint about being ‘dissed,’ but about that, get over it.”  And the line between ‘this’ and ‘that’ is always rather arbitrary and cannot help being so.  But it is absolutely essential to have one if we are not to have cultural anarchy.  Because of white privilege [which does exist, but it’s not doing a lot for the white working class, so don’t rub their noses in it] my feelings are not as hurt by being called a ‘honky’ as a black might be by the N-word.  The intent is just as derogatory, though.  And I’m even sensitive to code words.  When I was in university I was well aware that ‘middle class’ was a code word for ‘honky.’  Don’t call me a ‘Caucasian’, though.  And don’t use the word ‘Christian’ to mean ‘Gentile’, a practice which fortunately is no longer in fashion.  Oddly enough, I don’t necessarily mind being called a ‘bigot’.  The word ‘bigot’ is often just an uncomplimentary word for ‘someone who believes in transcendent truth’.  I know I should probably get more upset, after all, ‘n____’ means African American, doesn’t it, technically, and they are not necessarily ashamed of being African American.  Or shouldn’t be.  But we have nice words like ‘African-American.’  At least that’s a nice word now.  I don’t know if we have a similarly ‘nice’ word for ‘someone who believes in transcendent truth’.

University orientation weeks notoriously often go too far.  For freshman students who come from less diverse environments, I think it would be okay to have a ‘What Not to Say To’ series, like, ‘What not to say to a black person’, ‘What not to say to an Asian’, or ‘What Not to Say to an Evangelical Woman’, or even ‘What Not to Say to a White Male’, though white males are in general less touchy because of their privilege, those from less prosperous backgrounds might not have consciously benefited from their privilege all that much, and we should be more sensitive in dealing with them.

As for pronouns, ‘you’ is generally sufficient to someone’s face.  At least we don’t face the ‘you’ vs. ‘thou’ issues that most Western languages face.  We have the issues of first name vs. last name plus title vs. last name without title [the last is rarer now than in my youth, but I went to a military high school].  The singular ‘they’, which used to be denounced by grammarians, preferring the generic ‘he’ [‘Someone left his tampons out in the hall’] or the clumsy ‘he or she’, has been in use for a long time, definitely since the mid-twentieth century, long, long before the present feminism.  I recall a line from the hit song ‘Downtown’ in 1964: “Someone who is just like you and needs a gentle hand to guide them along.”

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