On Manners and Morality

Other — By on May 19, 2010 at 1:54 am

I have a friend who rides the train once a week. Never has a train ride gone by without her having some new tale of hair-raising public impropriety: people have drunken fights, fondle one another, shout on their cell phones, and otherwise demonstrate blatant disregard for the most basic social mores. My temptation is to repudiate these people as bad. But are they just part of a new social order?

Morality and manners have been explicitly linked at least since Erasmus. He published “The Education of Children,” an early manual exclusively devoted to children’s manners, in 1530. He held that teaching children manners early was preparatory to their moral development, because manners offered an enacted experience of abiding by an external code of “right” and “wrong.” In Erasmus’ mind, manners and morality are analogous; manners mirror morality. Though manners govern a lower sphere than morality, a social gaffe transgresses a code that people in general ‘ought’ to abide by, just as a moral lapse does. Though the words of Ms. Manners hold no obvious similarity to the words of Jesus Christ, both instruct in attitudes and behaviors, both offer commandments and prohibitions with the accompanying relational rewards and punishments.

Of course, manners need not indicate morality; a well-mannered person may be morally bankrupt, just as a saint may not be sensitive to her faux-pas. Often, however, we extrapolate from visible niceties to ethical commitments. Jane Austen, for one, plays on this tendency in nearly all of her novels. Her heroines are forever being taken in by the charm of young men who are later discovered to be anything from inconsiderate roués (Frank Churchill) to near-villains (Mr. Willoughby). They are likewise ever ascribing vice (Pride? Prejudice?) to those who, like Mr. Darcy, do not smoothly navigate the intricacies of Edwardian etiquette. Their surprise is often ours too; appearances are deceiving. It is tempting to generalize from the external evidence we have to certainty about the inner motivations of another, however problematic this may be.

Modern manners, those of the Emily Post variety, gained strength during the social upheaval at the turn of the century, leading into the Great Depression. Suddenly, the well-bred could not distinguish themselves by their wealth – first thanks to the rise of the nouveau riche, then thanks to the stock market crash – and so they distinguished themselves by behaving as ladies and gentlemen. It is obvious that such tactics for maintaining social strata failed: the power of the dollar triumphed over the power of politeness, as the antics of the rich and famous daily remind us. A recent on article by Christine Rosen, on the blog delightfully titled “Everyday Virtues,” asks, a little wistfully, where embarrassment has gone.  It accurately identifies embarrassment as of a lower order than shame; there is nothing morally wrong, necessarily, with getting your teeth whitened in public, or getting into a shouting phone conversation on the train, but to those of us still sensitive to such things, these actions still feel like a breach of a kind.

Embarrassment, Rosen argues, expresses social solidarity, sensitivity to being a part of a group larger than oneself. And in this age of solipsism, where self-promotion is practically an imperative, it is a dying emotion.

Of course, this acceptance of the unacceptable signals, not just the death of old norms, but establishment of the new.  In the place of embarrassment for egregious action, there is cultural shift toward finding the finding of such things shameful as itself shameful. To critique anyone’s behaviour any longer is taboo in the way egregious behavior used to be. To express disapproval of – or even surprise at – another’s public behavior is now unthinkable in a way such extremes once were. So, perhaps embarrassment is alive and well, it has simply turned against anyone attempting to elicit it. And in that sense, embarrassment still provides the cultural glue it did once, it just holds us together in different (and less desirable) ways. ‘