Ladies and Gentlemen

Tennis has always been a large part of my life and while I cannot play any more I watch as much as I can on the television and especially look forward to Wimbledon (“The Championships”) every year at this time. Having played on grass only once in my life and thinking at the time I had died and gone to Heaven,  I watch with dismay as the back-court area turns to dirt and the beautiful grass gradually disappears; I recall another era when the path between the baseline and the service line became worn down with players serving and volleying, chasing every serve quickly to the next. But no more. With the new equipment, it has become fairly easy to pass someone going to the net, so the vast majority of players stay on the baseline and hit the ball as hard as they can — often with good effect — and make the grass disappear.

I also watch with dismay players such as the young Australian I watched recently (who will not be named) with pierced ears and artfully shaven head who prowled the court with a permanent scowl — while he wasn’t “tanking” the entire third set — and was cheered on by his entourage (I suppose) all dressed in yellow shirts with “AUS” printed on them. They, too, looked like something the cat dragged out from under the sofa. The players all wear white, as required, but that’s the only remnant of the “old days” when ladies and gentlemen seldom, if ever, resorted to histrionics and who played the game for a trophy and not for millions of dollars. (Uh oh, I hear some say. Here he goes again. And yes, here I go again.)

I have blogged about the demise of manners before and I will not go back there except to expand on something I wrote a couple of years ago about this sad phenomenon — sad because manners are all about being mindful of the other, and it has become abundantly clear that the other has dropped off the radar of increasing numbers of folks in the Western world — perhaps because there are so damn many of us. Anyway, here’s the clip (with additions):

As humans emerged from the “dark ages” they began to show greater interest in their behavior toward others. It began with courtly behavior and the recognition of our “betters.” But it expanded in important ways as we learned to control our emotions. It was an essential element in what Norbert Elias called “the civilizing process.” In 1530, for example, we find Erasmus admonishing folks to be “reasonable, courteous and respectful in word or gesture.” One of my favorites was his insistence that “it is impolite to greet anyone who is urinating or defecating . . . A well-bred person should always avoid exposing without necessity those parts to which nature has attached modesty.” These concerns were coupled with admonitions not to be like “the rustics who have not been to court or lived among refined and honorable people, [and who] relieve themselves without shame or reserve in front of ladies….”

These quaint recommendations strike us as funny, but, again, they are directed toward the goal of “civilizing” human beings, making them suitable for a life among others. As Elias would have it, manners were born as humans living together became increasingly aware that their own behavior must take into account the feelings of others,  restraining oneself “out of consideration for the embarrassment of others.” Ortega y Gasset once said “civilization is above all else the will to live in common,” which captures the same thought.

In and of themselves a lack of courtesy and poor manners are trifles. But as signs of something deeper they must give us pause. I simply point out that when I speak about “manners” and “courtesy” as signs of a civilized person, I do not refer to the superficial behavior, the pretense, the bowing and scraping, the obsequiousness that hides a rotting soul. These are mere formalities and they do not necessarily imply the recognition of one person by another. Rather, I speak about a deeper sense on the part of each person that others matter, a sense of the other that leads readily to true virtue, to the practice of what has been called “the Golden rule.” Being polite is just the beginning of doing the right thing by another who deserves respect and at times sympathy.

The fact that we are becoming increasingly uncivilized, that we care less about others or about living with others — except, perhaps, for those few who are in our narrow field of vision — is a sign of what I have called “inverted consciousness.” Let me explain. Consciousness, as Edmund Husserl reminds us, is always intentional — it has an object; gradually over the years our consciousness has turned upon itself and the subject itself has become the object. In plain words, “it’s now all about me.” The other has disappeared, for all practical purposes, and so one can behave boorishly on a tennis court, chant and cheer loudly when the opponent commits an error, and forget all about court etiquette, or, indeed, etiquette of any sort. This, of course, is a reaction to past behaviors which a Victorian age, wrapped in mere formalities, stressed to absurd lengths and which we have tossed on the rubbish heap along with the all-important sense of the other as worthy of respect. This in the name of “letting it all hang out.”  Next I suppose we can expect to see our neighbor urinating on the road or in his front yard. No, wait: I have already seen that! But I didn’t greet him while he was in the act. As Erasmus reminds us, it would have been impolite.


7 thoughts on “Ladies and Gentlemen

  1. It’s quite an interesting topic. As you mentioned, consciousness is intentional. Discipline is always intentional, too, otherwise a habit is unconscious. When the discipline meets courtesy, a conscious person appears.

  2. Good post. Unfortunately, our current tennis players learned their boorish behavior from folks like Ilie Nastaste (nicknamed “Nasty”), Jimmy Connors, and John McEnroe. Any time the latter is covering an event and the player shows his hind end, I think “I hope McEnroe realizes this is what he looked like when he did the same.”

    I am currently reading David Brooks’ “”Road to Character.” Early on he mentions how subdued many of the celebrations in Europe were after winning WWII. It was almost dutiful not to celebrate the end too much, as lives and worlds were lost. He compared this to football players who celebrate “look at me” today after making a key sack or tackle.

    One of the recent posts on The Kindness Blog is around “do not mistake kindness for weakness,” which is how I have tried to live my life. The best of leaders tend to deflect credit, not needing it to placate their egos. MLK and Gandhi were inclusive people, who promoted civil disobedience, when the perceived more manly thing of fighting, would have been the wrong action. And, Atticus Finch, was the most courageous of literary figures, while also being the one of the kindest.

    Just last week, Nicholas Winton died at the age of 106. What did he do? He saved 699 Jewish children from the Nazis in 1939 repatriating them to England. What else did he do? He did not tell anyone he did it, not even his wife whom he married nine years later. His story is only known, as she found this humble hero’s papers in the attic in 1978 and asked him about it. She said we must tell this story and did.

    We cannot let civility die and need to promote it wherever possible. It unfortunately is not as sensational as being negative in retort or beating on your chest. Well said professor, BTG

    • Great comment. Many thanks! You are spot on: kindness and civility don’t grab the headlines and that seems to be the key these days. We need to learn how to downplay our accomplishments and be a bit more humble.

  3. I’m sorry to hear that the courts are not squeaky clean with fit and well-dressed athletes. I’m not surprised, but like you, disappoinited. It’s always great to read about people who still have a high code of honor, and the Kindness Blog is a great place to get some good news.

    • There are still a few around. But, as BTG says, they don’t get the attention they deserve. We prefer the loud headlines: we can read them. The small print is harder to read.

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