When she’s wearing her academic hat, the wise Judith Martin, the “Miss Manners” columnist and our leading theorist of etiquette, calls them “sub-legal norms of restraint.” The rest of the time she calls them “manners.”
And no, as she will politely but consistently remind you, manners are not simply about which fork to use or how to behave in high society. Manners take us to the heart of things. Fundamentally, they are intended to make sure that, whenever I’m in the company of others, I pay at least some attention to their needs and well-being, not just my own. Manners are the socially created guidelines that remind me (and, like most people, I need reminding) to keep my ego in check and my natural tendency to selfishness under some control.1
Manners signal to others, especially strangers, that we don’t intend to be aggressive toward them. They communicate both “I trust you” and “I can be trusted.” For this reason, manners are society’s first line of defense when it comes to protecting the weak from the predations of the powerful. It’s true that laws prevent the powerful from taking away my rights. But only manners can prevent them from ridiculing me, insulting me, or being indifferent to making me feel afraid. Laws limit cruelty, but only manners can make cruelty rare in everyday life.
Bad manners, then, are not violations of law, but they are, especially when taken to extremes, violations of decency. When these violations are private—the abusive blowhard who lives next door, the friend who makes a pass at your spouse, the boss at work who treats you like you don’t matter—they are hurtful. But when such violations come to infect our public life as well—when they become a normal part of how we talk to each other as citizens and how our political leaders talk to each other and to us—they are more than hurtful. They are dangerous, because they threaten society’s foundations.
Legal but unmannerly violations of decency are especially threatening to a democracy, which lacks a king or a strongman or a Great Leader to tell us how to behave. In a democracy we have to handle that responsibility on our own, and doing it right—indeed, doing it together at all—decisively depends upon the survival of those sub-legal norms of restraint that Judith Martin disarmingly calls “manners.”
Why am I thinking today about the importance of manners in public life? Take a wild guess.
I oppose much of President-elect Trump’s policy agenda, at least insofar as I understand it. Like many of us, I have strong convictions about deficit spending, health care, environmental protection, human rights, and the list goes on. But today these concerns pale in comparison to my concern about…manners.
For some, these words may sound almost silly, as if politeness is somehow on a par with, say, nuclear weapons policy. But it’s how I feel. Trump’s policy utterances merely alarm me, whereas his violations of decency disturb me at much deeper levels. For me, powerful people treating others as objects of contempt calls everything into doubt.
I realize that President-elect Trump is less the creator of the crudeness in our midst than a result of it. I also realize that millions of decent, well-mannered people of good will voted for him. I also agree that hyper-vigilant “political correctness” has run amok in parts of our society, even as I must insist that political correctness and manners are not the same. Manners are more capacious, less rigid, less overbearing; political correctness is to manners what military music is to music. Finally, I do understand that partisans on both the Left and Right have contributed to bringing forth this ugly public world that is now our common lot.
And yet, and yet. I tremble for my country when I reflect on the reality that we have elected, as the most powerful person in the nation and the world, a man whose entire manner is to be contemptuous of manners.
This article was originally published on December 26, 2016 in The American Interest.