WASHINGTON – In a campaign that has involved talk of revisiting the Geneva Conventions, rewriting the 14th Amendment and rounding up and expelling 11 million people, failures of politeness, violations of manners, would seem a secondary concern. But in this political cycle, insults, invective and coarseness have been charged with a political significance. They are intended to indicate authenticity and a fighting spirit – the liberation of politics from political correctness and elite sensibilities.
Some find this invigorating; others offensive. But it is one of the ways that the election of 2016 will be remembered – for playground taunts, for attacks on candidates’ families, for vulgar bodily references and for a nasty, ungenerous spirit.
This is hardly unprecedented. To the contrary, our country’s conception of proper manners has often moved in a generational cycle. Various movements of the late 1960s, for example, involved liberation from stifling social conformity. This created necessary space for the unconventional, while changing stupid and oppressive conventions (such as social prohibitions on interracial marriage, or, later, bigotry against gays and lesbians).
But all attempts to overthrow etiquette in favor of what is “real” come from a belief (hat tip to Jean-Jacques Rousseau) that what comes naturally is also good. In real life, what comes naturally to human beings – as anyone who has cared for small human beings will tell you – is often selfish, petulant and rude. All children are Donald Trump before they are taught manners.
People get tired of living in a society filled with the sharp corners of incivility. The mannerlessness of the late 1960s and 1970s produced a backlash of good taste, symbolized by the popularity of Miss Manners (aka Judith Martin) in the 1980s and Ronald Reagan’s rather courtly formality.
What is different this time is that the challenge to manners is coming from the right – not the “free speech movement” but from brushfire populism. The standards and values of reality television – the exaggerated feuds, the personal vilification and the deleted expletives – have invaded the political realm. And it is a form of social decay.
America’s founders actually thought and wrote a lot about manners. (No. 2 on the “Rules of Civility” George Washington copied down as a boy: “When in company, put not your hands to any part of the body not usually discovered.” I imagine this would also cover references to your manhood during a presidential debate.) The founders worried that a society without an aristocracy would lack obvious standards of propriety. But it is good manners that allow citizens to argue without coming to blows, and even to find productive compromise.
Manners are not the same thing as morality. They are practical rules for living together. Unlike morality, manners vary greatly by country and tribe, as well as across time. But being relative does not make them trivial. Particularly in a democracy, good manners involve an affirmation that we, all of us, are part of the same community, and that everyone is due a certain minimal amount of respect. Poor manners, in contrast, can indicate the dehumanization of individuals and groups. The boor is often the bigot.
“America has – in theory – the best code of manners the world has ever seen,” argues Miss Manners. “That’s because it is based on respect for the individual, regardless of his or her origin. Good manners in America are about helping strangers. They’re also about judging people on their qualities rather than on their backgrounds. These are principles that were deliberately worked out by our Founding Fathers to assure the dignity of the individual and keep society nonhierarchical.”
This is what should appeal to conservatives the most. Good manners create a livable community without recourse to laws and regulations. They create ties among citizens that are not based on compulsion. When we stand in a stadium with our hand over our hearts, or refrain from using bad language in front of children in the subway, or disagree about politics without becoming personal and vicious, we add a few invisible strands that hold our community and democracy together. In most everyday circumstances, manners matter more than laws.
This is a social contract. We treat people with respect in the hope and expectation we will be treated with respect. And people who demand respect without showing it are properly viewed as narcissists or sociopaths.
Those who equate crudeness and cruelty with authenticity are doing a nasty disservice to their country, making it that much harder to live together. Those who want to serve their country should mind their manners.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.