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.
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.