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Mark Caldwell Defends Rudeness

12:00 AM, Aug 16, 1999 • By LEE BOCKHORN
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America has become schizophrenic about manners. By the millions we flock to scatological comedies, from the toilet-mouthed South Park to the masturbatory American Pie. And at the same time polls reveal that a huge majority believe American manners and morals have undergone a precipitous and deplorable decline. Eighty-nine percent of respondents to a 1996 U.S. News & World Report survey agreed that the nation is "basically uncivil."

Enter Mark Caldwell, a literary critic and social historian at Fordham University -- a New York City school located in that heart of American manners, The Bronx. His new study, A Short History of Rudeness, isn't so much a discussion of "rudeness" as a rebuke of what he calls "jeremiads" on manners, from Christopher Lasch's 1979 The Culture of Narcissism to Gertrude Himmelfarb's 1995 The De-Moralization of Society. Believing that such books turn "optional niceties into duties in the hope that this will stiffen our moral spines," Caldwell sets out to discover whether manners are -- or even should be -- related to morals.

The answer he arrives at is, surprisingly, yes. Manners do touch upon morals, but the connection becomes "deceptive, sinuous, and complicated" in practice. Caldwell offers a variety of historical and anecdotal evidence for this view, the best example being political correctness. The attempt to bring propriety to race and gender relations, he notes, is often as inconsiderate as the behavior it seeks to avoid.

But from this correct (if somewhat obvious) point, he quickly overreaches, deciding that all efforts to stress manners are overbearing and ineffectual:

The urge to inflate personal options into obligations is not a moral impulse but pushiness disguised as concern, whim masquerading as expertise. Behind it, however well it may be meant, lurks the urge to control, to punish, to make ourselves part of the "good" class . . . and to brand anyone who fails to conform as a Yahoo.

As Caldwell sees it, this "urge" serves the hypocritical purpose of a self-defined elite trying to distinguish itself from its ostensible lessers -- defined as the boorish, the provincial, and the declasse.

But while class distinctions are certainly important to the history of manners, they aren't the whole story. Victorians believed that branding the unmannered as "Yahoos" served a beneficial purpose: What nature fails to teach -- to be kind, for instance -- the threat of ostracism and ignominy may impart. More important, good manners can lead to higher virtues. Caldwell quotes Edmund Burke on this point:

Manners are of more importance than laws . . . [They] are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize and refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe in. They give their whole form and colour to our lives. According to their quality, they aid morals, they supply them, or they totally destroy them.

Curiously, even while he criticizes those like Burke who connect manners to moral improvement, Caldwell ends up providing evidence to confirm them -- as when he recounts a disturbing incident of "road rage" in which an innocent bystander was shot and left quadriplegic: "Indeed, a breakdown in manners can deteriorate into a confrontation where both morals and laws are violated. . . . Small morals aren't really small if they can tame the passions that lead to this kind of tragedy."

Caldwell's real objection isn't to the link between manners and morals, but to the idea that anyone has authority to tell us what that link is: "Everyone," he declares, "is qualified to contribute" -- every man his own Emily Post. After all, didn't Diogenes the Cynic once use inspired rudeness to mock the pretensions of the Athenians? And aren't William Bennett and the other modern promoters of good manners really closet authoritarians, against whom rudeness is our best defense?

What people like Bennett, Lasch, and Himmelfarb do is exploit the American desire "for stable and rock-solid values." "But," Caldwell insists, "values are always somebody's values, and somebody else, perhaps equally worthy and well-meaning, may hold other, very different ones." That isn't true, of course; people in fact hold surprisingly consistent values across the board. But even if it were true, what Caldwell has in fact identified is merely the local variations of manners, not values: The fact that a man is supposed to uncover his head in a church and cover it in a synagogue reveals varying manners and an unvarying ideal of well-manneredness.