Coming Unraveled

As a high school student in Baltimore I used public transportation to go back and forth to school. It was standard procedure to get up and give one’s seat to elderly folks, especially elderly women, who would otherwise have to stand. All the boys did it. We also said “sir” and “ma’am” to our teachers, and held the door for women, did what we were told to do, did not interrupt, and spoke only when spoken to. That’s what we were taught. My wife tells me she was raised in pretty much the same way in Kansas City, Missouri — though she was the one the doors were held open for. When we raised our two sons we were very concerned that they also learn good manners, that they were courteous and considerate of others. These rules were self-evident as far as we were concerned. It was the way we were raised and we wanted our sons to go forth into the world armed with the basic tools that would allow them to get along with others. It seems to have worked as they are both happy and successful in their lives and careers.

But the older I get the more I realize that this sort of thing is out-dated. People simply don’t spend much time raising their kids any more, even less teaching them manners. Much of this, of course, arises from activists who felt that good manners were pretentious and often demeaning to women, together with the pop psychologists who wrote best-selling paperbacks in the 50s and 60s telling parents not to thwart their children’s spontaneity, that suppression and discipline were wrong; all of this, of course, was reinforced by the entertainment industry that showed spoiled, ill-mannered  kids in charge and insisted it was funny. In the end we eventually said “good-bye” to good manners as children became the center of many a family gathering and the adults simply shut up when the children spoke and forgot the word “no.”

As I have mentioned in previous blogs, these attitudes have been augmented in the schools by the “self-esteem” movement that insists that kids be told they are great even though they are unmotivated and the projects they turn in are trash. This has given rise to rampant grade inflation and an age of entitlement in which every Tom, Dick, and Sally are rude and self-absorbed and expect things to be handed to them. Manners, at least, have gone the way of the dinosaurs and we are now surrounded by folks who aren’t fully aware that others share their world and who demand that their needs and wants be fulfilled immediately, if not sooner. This point was emphasized in a recent blog where I also quoted some wise words from Edmund Burke about the importance of manners to civilization, which, as Ortega Y Gasset told us a long time ago is above all the desire to live in common. You may recall Burke’s words:

“Manners are of more importance than laws. Upon them, in great measure, the laws depend. The law touches us but here and there. . . Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify. . . .barbarize or refine us. . . .they give their whole form and colour to our lives. According to their quality, they aid morals, they supply them, or they totally destroy them.”

About three generations later, the same basic idea had evolved somewhat and was expressed by Alexis de Tocqueville, after visiting the United States for nine months and going home to write Democracy In America:

“If you do not succeed in connecting the notion of virtue with that of private interest, which is the only immutable point in the human heart, what means will you have of governing the world except by fear?”

As I mentioned in that blog, with the demise of manners (and morals), society necessarily falls back on civil laws to keep order — that is, laws without the support of manners and morals to give them strength, only fear of reprisal. And with the recent events surrounding the jury trials of George Zimmerman and Marissa Alexander, as noted in a recent blog, one shudders to think how the average person will come to regard lawmakers, the role of law, and civil courts in this country. The outbreak of violent protests over the Zimmerman case, especially, in which a guilty man was found not guilty on the grounds of an insane law reflect well-founded — and understandable — doubts about the sanctity of both law and the courts in Florida, if not the rest of the country. This concern, coupled with the demise of manners and the reduction of morality to matters of opinion (“Who’s to say?”) suggest that the final strands in keeping a civil society together seem to be coming unraveled — held together only by fear in one of its many forms.

I have noted on occasion the birth of a new barbarism, evidenced by increasing numbers of folks who are tattooed, pierced, ignorant, linguistically disabled, self-absorbed, disdainful of history and tradition, and disrespectful of others. The Romans welcomed the barbarians from the Germanic tribes into their armies and their world as their Empire disintegrated.  We have bred our own. And with the huge surge in the sale of weapons recently, we are talking about armed barbarians.


6 thoughts on “Coming Unraveled

  1. And we clearly are well into the era of greed, the destruction of the middle class, and a rental vs. ownership society. I don’t see how any of this can end other than badly, and in time, all the guns our politicians and NRA are encouraging us to buy, will be turned, and trained on these same greedy politicians.

  2. your post reminds me of why i love ecuador; people are SO courteous. they nod to everyone in a room when they enter and say, ‘buenos dias’ or tardes or noches – when they enter an elevator, anywhere. in a restaurant they greet anyone who is eating or being served, ‘buen provecho..’ meet a young lad or gal, and they have been taught to graciously greet the stranger with either a polite gentle handshake or a kiss on the cheek. they expect reciprocation.

    yesterday new friends stopped by and took me to town where they have a modest second home. they had just arrived and stopped to give me a little bag of chifles (fried plantains that are like potato chips) because the first time we met i was eating chifles and shared them with the family!

    so they wanted me to see where their second home was – i jumped in their car.. father, mother, grandmother, 6 year old, 12 year old, two cousins 7 and 11… the car was small but we barely noticed! at their home they opened the door and invited me in first.. shoes off at the door – the oldest son showed me around the petite three-bedroom brick/concrete house.. every bed, the small table (no chairs!) the kitchen sink, even the refrigerator! he was so proud of their little second home! then the four children took me to the yard. they showed me the carambola tree (starfruit), and two mango trees, and a jobo tree (beats me!) and another tree with grape-like edible fruits.. they climbed trees and picked fruits and tossed them —

    after about half an hour, papa drove me back home… today on their way back to their real home, about three hours away, they dropped by and gave me a bag of starfruits, hugged me and invited me to stay with them if i ever came through their town.

    sigh.. just like it was once upon a time when i was young…

    forgive me for this long comment – i should have written a post, but perhaps it transported you to another life where people still practice etiquette and are kind to strangers.


  3. Hugh, very pertinent post. Yours and Barney’s post of today remind of us of a need for civility, as well as manners. As a former coach, you may have also observed the same thing I have in the elimination of the rule to not trash talk or taunt your opponent. With it being encouraged now and sports shows flaunting it, fans trash talk which is even more inane than the players doing it. I can’t recall if it was a Giants fan at Dodgers game or the other way around, but a guy was beaten unmercifully by the home team fans for the horrible sin of wearing the away team’s jersey. Thanks for writing this. BTG

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