The Culture Wars And … Manners

We really are back to the 1990s when I find myself agreeing with Jonah Goldberg:

We live in an age of diversity, defined not merely by gender and race, but by lifestyles and values. That’s mostly a good thing — mostly. Like all other good things in life, diversity comes at a cost. And a big part of the tab is a lost consensus about what constitutes good manners and propriety. So instead of knowing how to behave, we spend vast amounts of our time worrying and arguing about it, with combatants on every side insisting it’s “Live and let live” for me but “Shut up! How dare you!” for thee.

In this age of unprecedented cultural liberty, we’ve lost sight of the fact that common standards of decency and decorum can be liberating. They inconvenience everyone — a little — but they also free us from worrying about who we might offend or why. School uniforms, remember, constrain the wealthy kids for the benefit of the poor ones.

For millennia, good manners were understood as the means by which strangers showed each other respect. Now, too many people demand respect but have lost the ability, or desire, to show it in return.

One way to defuse the issue of, say, cat-calling is to insist on decent manners, rather than to turn the question into a bloody fist-fight over patriarchy. One way to have avoided “shirtgate,” for example, would have been to parse that micro-aggression as a failure of appropriate taste in the context of a public appearance, rather than seeing it as another micro-aggression against an entire gender. Of course, this can obscure deeper issues. And I’m sure not advocating that we constrain robust feminist critiques of clueless or sexist boorishness. But a question of manners can be neutral and less emotive grounds for actually achieving what we want to achieve in creating a culture more aware of what the world feels like for many women. Demand that men be gentlemen, rather than something other than men.

I wonder also if our digital life hasn’t made all this far worse. Conor has a typically smart and nuanced take on this in its particulars. When you sit in a room with a laptop and write about other people and their flaws, and you don’t have to look them in the eyes, you lose all incentive for manners.

You want to make a point. You may be full to the brim with righteous indignation or shock or anger. It is only human nature to flame at abstractions, just as the awkwardness of physical interaction is one of the few things constraining our rhetorical excess. When you combine this easy anonymity with the mass impulses of a Twitterstorm, you can see why manners have evaporated and civil conversations turned into culture war.

I’m as guilty of this as many. There have been times – far too many – when my passion for an idea or revulsion at a news story can, in its broadness of aim, impugn the integrity or good faith of other individuals. If I had to speak my words to the faces of those I am painting with too broad and crude a brush, my language would be far more temperate (and probably more persuasive). And so restoring manners to online discourse is a hard task – especially in an era of instant mass communication and anonymity. It’s hard for a blogger or writer not least because you don’t want to sink into torpor or dullness or vapidity. You want to keep the debate fresh and real.

But all this means, of course, is that we actually need a set of manners for this age more urgently than in many others. Our web silos – from the Jihadists to the left-blogosphere to the right-media complex – make it easy to thrive and succeed without manners, and even easier to fail in the marketplace by upholding them. But manners matter. They create the climate in which free debate is possible. They are the lubrication that can make a liberal polity actually work.

Update from a reader, for the record:

Jonah Goldberg sighs about society’s lack of manners and decency:

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(Sidebar photo by Flickr user Butupa. This image was cropped by the Dish.)