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.

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Why Manners Matter

As humans emerged from the “dark ages” they began to show greater interest in their behavior toward others. 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 favorite of his admonitions 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,” which reflect a conviction that some people were simply regarded as better than others. Classes, evolving from the Feudal age, were beginning to form and they would take firm hold well into the age of capitalism and industrialization when they would begin to blur. But the point was that people were becoming aware that others mattered; the “higher” classes were beginning to learn manners and they were also determined that they needed to take care of those who were their responsibility (no doubt because the “rustics” provided them with their living. Here we have a sense of duty born of self-interest). Thus came into being, I would think, social “forms,” which were prevalent well into the Victorian age in England and, to a lesser extent, in this country as well.

But then came the growth of capitalism and the sudden birth of a wealthy class which blurred the old social classes and the “new rich” began to imitate the “well-born.” The blue bloods had been taught from birth to behave well in company and to take into account the impact of their behavior on others.  But right and wrong became lost in the confusion over whether or not wealth was a good thing as a waning Christianity weakened the restraints of morality and the Other became less and less important.  Manners began to deteriorate as the new rich took up the same forms and tried to mimic those they regarded as the paradigms of society, their “betters.”

This is what was happening in New York in the early part of the twentieth century as reflected in many of Edith Wharton’s novels: ethical restraints were tottering and the new rich were social climbers who took up behaviors that were not natural to themselves and those behaviors became mere empty forms — though those “born to the manor” whom the new-rich imitated increasingly lost sight of what those forms had once meant. I don’t think Wharton had any quarrel with the forms themselves, after all, they were built around a genuine concern for others and focused on what she would have called “good manners.” But when the forms were empty they became a sham, and the young, especially, saw that and also saw the hypocrisy and pretense that hid behind a false front. So the young during Wharton’s era started looking for new paradigms and saw around them the more “natural” behaviors of others who smoked, were disrespectful of their elders, and were increasingly preoccupied with themselves. This they found an easy model to copy and it became the norm.

Again, Wharton’s quarrel was with the pretense and falsehood of the empty forms that were being grafted onto wealthy social climbers who modeled themselves after a “higher” social class who had begun to forget why the forms were invented in the first place. In the shuffle something terribly important was being lost, namely, a determined effort (for whatever reasons) to behave toward others as one would have them behave toward oneself. Indeed, the sense of “other” was soon lost entirely. That, I think, is what bothered Edith Wharton. It bothered George Eliot and Anthony Trollope as well who saw it happening around them in England a generation before Wharton. And we are the inheritors of this legacy. The loss of “good manners” was nothing less than the loss of a sense that the “other” mattered in the least. Thus, if manners are a sign that we have become civilized, then the loss of manners would suggest that we are reverting to a sort of new barbarism in which the individual is the only one who matters.