Manners and Morals
Robert L. Wichterman
Robert L. Wichterman writes from Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
If I were to comment at any social gathering that I believe that our society has become coarse, vulgar, and ill-mannered, most of those who heard me would agree. There has been a breakdown in the societal order. People no longer care about their actions, or how their behavior impacts others.
A survey by both U. S. News & World Report and Bozell Worldwide, a global advertising firm, says that nine out of ten Americans believe incivility to be a serious problem. Further, 78 percent think it has worsened in the last ten years. They also worry that continued disrespectful actions could cause a splintering of our society.
As people interact on a daily basis, their conversations are both crude, obscene, and often illiterate. Perhaps they've been educated by the typical low-brow situation comedies and talk shows on television. A Gallup poll recently claimed that a large majority of Americans agree:
The United States has become a country in which the very notion of a "good person" is often ridiculed, and where retribution is the operative word.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of manners states that they are "habitual conduct or deportment in social intercourse evaluated according to some conventional standard of politeness or civility." In the 18th Century, Edmund Burke said, "Manners are of more importance than laws. Upon them, in a great measure, the laws depend." Thomas Hobbes commented that: "Manners are small morals."
I believe that the general decline in manners can be traced back to the demise of our Judeo-Christian convictions regarding personal behavior, which was followed by a waning in the teaching of what is acceptable social conduct.
In fact, as the use of "good manners" has deteriorated, so have our morals, as manifested by the 35 percent out-of-wedlock births. This is revealed as many of our citizens no longer care about the consequences of their actions. Judith Martin, the American journalist known as "Miss Manners," claims that Americans have come to accept the idea that "any behavior not prohibited by law ought to be tolerated." Yet, those same people often try to use the court system to rectify what proper manners would not have allowed in the first place. Ms. Martin continued, "People who found rude but legally permitted behavior intolerable, have attempted to expand the law to out-law rudeness." "These initiatives," she says, "are a threat to the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution."
In the late 18th Century, the British MP William Wilberforce, wanted to abolish slavery in Great Britain. He knew that, given the culture and the attitude of the English people, Parliament would not pass it. In order to complete his mission, he had to transform their society. At that time, public drunkenness was rampant, there was a high crime rate, and low moral standards. Further, official corruption was widespread, and there was a broad disregard for the law.
Mr. Wilberforce became involved with 69 benevolent groups that promoted social reforms, aid to the poor, education, etc. One of those associations was the Society for the Reformation of Manners. As he worked with these secular and religious organizations for about ten years, British society was reformed, and Parliament did end slavery in the Empire. (That law prevented them from being able to help and diplomatically recognize the Confederate States of America, during our Civil War.)
Don Eberly, the civil society commentator and head of the Civil Society Project, wrote that:
The responsible use of manners, coupled with the aid of social rules and restraints, serve important purposes in maintaining an ordered freedom in a democratic society.
The English judge, John Moulton, called manners "the domain of obedience to the unenforceable." They are about "doing right when there is no one to make you do it, but yourself."
Unfortunately, we (the taxpayers) and our government, must deal with the effluent from the death of the Judeo-Christian ethics and morals standards. The consequences of that collapse are poverty, inferior education for the children of single, low-income parents, drug addiction, and the felons who prey upon us.
Thomas Hobbes also noted:
Manners contribute to the maintenance of order and balance in society; they safeguard society from the nasty, brutish conditions that characterized man in his uncivilized state, while minimizing the need for a highly intrusive state.
In order to help himself to control his potent temper, and to assist him to move ahead socially, George Washington kept a notebook in which he listed 110 "Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation." The first principle was, "Every action done in company ought to be done with some sign of respect for those who are present." By following this book Washington honed his leadership qualities.
How can we restore manners to a society that emphasizes individualism in which "any behavior not prohibited by law ought to be tolerated"? It is axiomatic that we cannot legislate morality. The maxim of what are accepted as "good manners" is also true.
Judith Martin, "Miss Manners," defined manners as:
. . . that part of our fundamental beliefs or wants that includes such notions as communal harmony, dignity of the person, a need for cultural coherence, and an aesthetic sense. Etiquette is the set of rules which emerges from those beliefs.
They -- those unenforceable "good manners" -- have waxed and waned many times in these United States. In the 19th Century, there were 236 books being sold regarding them. Currently, there are only a few books with manners as the principle subject. I have read of one, The Rules, by Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider, which lists new guides -- which were actually in use in the 1940s and 1950s for women to follow in order to gain the respect and loyalty of their suitors. Such works are badly needed to correct the excesses of those who, during the 1960s and 1970s, rejected all of society's graces and restraints. A revulsion against the repudiation of those Judeo-Christian standards may be why many young people are searching for truth, and are picking abstinence over "hooking up."
The problems caused by a lack of manners are now being addressed by many in both the private and public sectors of American life. Hopefully they, like William Wilberforce, will lead us out of this desert of incivility and into the garden of proper manners. *
"I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year." --Charles Dickens