The 2016 elec­tion’s nasty spirit

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Michael Ger­son

— 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 is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at michael­ger­son@wash­

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