This column was originally published in the January, 2012 issue of B-Metro Magazine. Now seemed like a good time to re-post it.
Almost true story: A fine Southern lady and her daughter are taking a cab through New York, when the young girl asks about several brazenly-dressed women standing at a nearby street corner. “Well, sweetheart,” her mother explains, “those women are personal escorts. Single gentlemen hire ladies like that to keep them company.”
“Aww comon, toots,” the driver blurts, “Tell her the truth! They’re hookers. They get paid to have sex.”
After a painful silence, the daughter asks, “But Mama, if that’s true, don’t they have babies?”
“Well, yes they do, darling. That’s where cabbies come from.”
What I love most about that adage is how, without abandoning her mannered gentility, Mama takes that cabbie to the woodshed like Bama whuppin the trash-talking Commodores in Nashville this year. As we’d say in the South, “Bless his heart, he didn’t know what hit him.”
And bless our hearts, but civility is becoming so rare in public discourse, these days I can even get a little giddy reading a graciously-stated opinion I disagree with. For example: In a September piece entitled Are Scientists Becoming the New Priests?, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Debra Saunders (one of my favorite columnists) wrote, “For the record, I believe in evolution. But I also have respect for those who see God’s handiwork in the process — and see little reason to try to marginalize those with different personal beliefs.”
Naturally, I would prefer to see Debra singing in the choir on Sundays, but I love the fact that she can weigh-in on one of the most contentious issues of our time without offending either side.
And that’s one of the beauties of a civil society: People can disagree with one another without disrespecting each other. Which (for example) is why, despite generally leaning to the right, I vastly prefer NPR to Fox News. Particularly the Friday-afternoon discussions between liberal EJ Dionne and conservative David Brooks. Two masters of the poignant zinger, whose political views are as diametrically opposed as the Tea Party and the Occupiers, yet who (unlike those two caustic coalitions) manage always to limit the aim of their occasional barbs to one another’s positions—not one another.
And boy do they ever disagree. But to hear them talk, I’m always left with the impression that these two guys are genuinely friends. So where did our public manners go? Personally, I’d lay most of the blame on the Baby Boom (of which, yes, I am a reluctant member); arguably the most self-congratulatory generation in human history, still endlessly celebrating—among other legacies—the righteous rallies of the Vietnam era.
Not that Vietnam wasn’t a terrible mistake. But imagine how much more effective the opposition might have been if they’d followed the peaceful-protest example of Martin Luther King—instead of staging an endless series of violent demonstrations that rarely amounted to little more than televised tantrums gone horribly wrong.
Imagine how the Watergate hearings would be remembered if they’d been led not by honorable elder statesmen like Sam Ervin and Howard Baker, but rather by the current crop on Capitol Hill. Particularly that new breed of politician, brilliantly characterized by my friend Hanson Watkins as “political suicide bombers”. They pretend to have our nation’s best interests at heart, but in truth they’re just professionally trained anger merchants—speaking across the proverbial aisle only through carefully-crafted, sarcasm-laden tweets and talking points.
To bring this all back home, if it wasn’t for my wife, I’d probably still be a knuckle-dragging Neanderthal myself when it comes to manners. Not that my parents didn’t try (and try, and try) to teach them to me. They just never fully sold me on the practical benefits of good manners, as a child. So while Martha has taught our kids by words and example, my primary contribution has been a fairly effective sales job for those practical benefits—which goes something like this:
If you have good manners, grownups will like you more than other children. They’ll do things for you they won’t do for other children. They might even buy you things they won’t buy other children. And some day, you’ll start having good manners just because you enjoy it.
In practical terms, that’s the ultimate benefit of a civil society: It simply makes life more enjoyable for everybody. Kids and adults. And if there’s one thing severely lacking in our culture these days, it’s a natural inclination to spread joy—no matter what the circumstances are. Now, if I could only remember that simple truth the next time I get behind the wheel.
January 2, 2018: A depressing post-script, published this morning in the Wall Street Journal (excerpts):
From the land that irony forgot—which earlier gave us microaggressions and trigger warnings—comes a new and surprising movement, this time to combat civility. Civility, you see, is a manifestation of the white patriarchy. Spearheading this campaign are a duo of University of Northern Iowa professors, who assert that “civility within higher education is a racialized, rather than universal, norm.”
Their article in the Howard Journal of Communications describes a need to stamp out what they call “whiteness-informed civility,” or WIC. The pervasiveness of WIC, it seems, erases “racial identity” and reinforces “white racial power.”
Their thesis can be a tad hard to follow, unfolding as it does in that dense argot for which academia is universally beloved. But their core contention is twofold: One, that civility, as currently practiced in America, is a white construct. Two, that in a campus setting, the “woke” white student’s endeavor to avoid microaggressions against black peers is itself a microaggression—a form of noblesse oblige whereby white students are in fact patronizing students of color. Not only that, but by treating black students with common courtesy and expecting the same in return, white students elide black grievances, bypassing the “race talk” that is supposed to occur in preamble to all other conversations. Got it?
No, as a matter of fact, I don’t Got It. And here’s hoping you don’t either.