Courtesy in a Violent World
This “bonus” minisode tackles the topic of common courtesy, which is so much more than using the right salad fork. If we’re ever going to solve the problem of hatred and violence in our world, we’ve got to start with treating each other with basic respect, kindness, and dignity.
If you prefer to read rather than listen, scroll down to find a transcript of this episode.
Civility by Stephen L. Carter
Transcript of Episode 18.5: Courtesy in a Violent World
This is a quick minisode–I’m calling it Episode 18.5–about the role of good manners in society. This is maybe a slightly more serious topic today than I normally talk about, but a few distressing things have happened lately in the news. I know distressing news is not unusual, and normally I don’t watch a lot of news for that reason. But a couple stories have come across my newsfeed than broke my heart.
First, there was a brawl that broke out at that supposedly happiest place on Earth, Disneyland. Even worse, this brawl broke out in the Toontown section, which I understand is where the youngest children go. So who knows how many people including some very young children had their visit ruined by having to be unwilling witnesses to this brawl that broke out among adults who were angry with each other and couldn’t manage to settle their differences peacefully, without shouting and cursing and physical violence.
I was still reeling from that story when the second story hit. This one happened much closer to my home. It happened in a small town quite near to me, where two teenage girls beat a third teenage girl, allegedly with a baseball bat, and put her in the hospital. This is normally a quiet, almost sleepy place, and to have something like this happen here just … there are no words.
I’m not going to go into detail on either one of these stories, nor am I going t link to them. I don’t want these kinds of topics on my page. The only reason I’m even bringing them up here today is that I feel they point to and are indicators of what can happen when people forget, or perhaps are never even taught, how to be civil to one another. Call it what you will–call it good manners or proper etiquette or civility or decency–those are all facets of the same thing. These acts of violence, as well as many others that take place here in America and all over the world, are symptoms. They’re symptoms of people losing their ability to get along with each other for the good of the community.
Sometimes people are amused by or even ridicule my longing for a return to good manners in society today. After all, who cares which fork you use for your salad or whether or not to chew with your mouth closed. Well, they’re right. It’s not about the forks. It’s not about the table manners. When you’re talking violence, these things don’t matter much. As many commenters have pointed out, people who do these sorts of things are steeped in dysfunction and violence and maybe mental illness. No amount of “please” and “thank you” can fix that.
But at its essence, above everything else, practicing good manners is simply a social lubricant that reduces the friction that occurs when people rub up against others or encounter people who rub them the wrong way. It’s a balm for wounds to keep them small and avoid letting them blow up into bigger problems.
Manners help people of different viewpoints and backgrounds and experiences to get along when they’re in the public square or at any type of gathering. Mannerly behavior and civility give people a framework within which they can try to work out their differences and a standard of behavior to treat each other with respect and dignity, not to beat someone to a pulp because they said or did something someone else didn’t like. At the very least, if differences cannot be resolved, good manners provide a way for each party to walk away, to maintain their own space, and to avoid interacting for their mutual benefit, if that’s the only way to keep the peace.
I’m not talking about glossing over problems or putting a fake happy face on them. But I am talking about using what used to be called common courtesy or basic courtesy to allow us to overlook the petty grievance or unintended slight instead of taking offense, or to resolve it in a way that leaves both affected parties with their dignity intact before the situation devolves into a brawl. Civility also assures that others don’t get drawn into the disagreement, either as unwilling witness like the innocent tourists trying to enjoy a day at Disneyland, or even those who are initially not involved but whose emotions are ginned up to the point where they take sides in the fight.
In his excellent book Civility, Stephen L. Carter writes, “Civility as a moral proposition begins with the assumption that humans matter, that we owe each other respect, and that treating each other well is a moral duty. Civility so understood often requires us to put aside our own interests and desires for the benfit of others–which, as the ancient philosopher Erasmus understood, is what civilization is all about.”
In short, civility teaches us to discipline our desires for the sake of others. In short, it’s the Golden Rule: to treat others as we would want to be treated. To love one another, and love our neighbors as ourselves.
So, no, I’m not naïve enough to think a few charm-school lessons are going to solve the deeply rooted problem of violence and incivility in our world. But I’m not going to sit idly by, either. I’m going to do my part to restore dignity and grace to the extent that I can, within my sphere of influence, one person at a time. Won’t you join me?