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DO MANNERS MATTER?

Mark Caldwell Defends Rudeness

12:00 AM, Aug 16, 1999 • By LEE BOCKHORN
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Perhaps the worst failing of A Short History of Rudeness is Caldwell's ignorance of the effect America's endless litigation has had on manners and civility. When every difference between individuals becomes potential grounds for a lawsuit, should we be surprised that we have a ruder culture? Incredibly, Caldwell never addresses this important issue, perhaps because it undermines his claim that today's manners crisis is just the latest in a continually recurring cycle. The present ebb in civility has unique causes -- such as the rejection of authority and community norms in the 1960s -- and requires an equally drastic response. Athens only had to deal with the public-spirited Diogenes; we must cope with Dennis Rodman.


The topic of manners presents difficult terrain, stretching from Miss Manners to Beavis and Butt-head. By and large, Caldwell proves equal to this task. He is engaging on many subjects, from Martha Stewart to funerals to cyberspace sludge. However, while A Short History of Rudeness can be entertaining and informative, it doesn't answer the most important question: How can America, a mobile and egalitarian society whose manners are in constant flux, restore its sense of civility?


In his discussion of manners on the Internet, Caldwell comes tantalizingly close to the answer:


Some innate and unconscious human law seems to conserve [manners], even against the odds. As the Internet has already begun to demonstrate, even a social space created with conscious lawlessness quickly demonstrates a need for order and generates a rough code of manners.


Just what is this "innate and unconscious human law" that can explain the "complicated" link between manners and moral duty? Perhaps it's really not that complicated after all: "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets."


The golden rule is, after all, a fundamental tenet of most religions and something every six-year-old innately understands. It may not transport us back to a golden age of manners and mores. But adherence to it in small matters might go a long way towards solving our newer, more pressing problems -- like people shooting each other over fender-benders.




Lee Bockhorn is an editorial assistant at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.