“Let them eat cake,” Marie Antoinette said (but not really), when told that the peasants of France were starving to death.
The queen’s mistake is usually explained by the fact that she was so immersed in an artificial world of plentiful cakes and ices – i.e. the superfluous things that make civilization more pleasant – that she was blinded to the scarcity and existential necessity of the coarse bread of the peasantry – i.e. the essential things that make civilization possible.
Good manners are (or so a certain argument goes) like Marie Antoinette’s cake. Everyone agrees that they’re nice to have, and that it is better to have them than not. And yet, like cake, good manners are ultimately inessential, dispensable even.
This is especially true in times of crisis, when we no longer have the luxury of fretting so much about how things are done (which pertains to manners), but rather what is done (which pertains to morals). Whereas moral truth and moral action are the bread that sustains the lifeblood of a healthy society, good manners are the cake, to be cultivated and enjoyed when things are going well.
Meanwhile (to complete the analogy), those who, like Marie Antoinette, lament the dearth of cake (or manners) when death is knocking at the door, or when the barbarians are knocking at the gate, are guilty of a bourgeois inversion of values, borne of an excessive moral daintiness.
Morals trump manners, every time.
More important than laws
The more divided our society becomes, the more alluring this way of looking at things appears.
Everywhere I look nowadays, I see people preaching the necessity of setting aside our concern for such things as “politeness” or ” niceness,” which are assumed to be merely a matter of good manners, so as to fight more effectively within the great moral emergencies of our time.
Niceness, we are reminded, is not a virtue. It may even be a vice – the last refuge of moral mice who have not yet accepted that offending others is the price to pay for standing up for what is right.
And yet, as “common-sensical” as this argument appears, it has the mark of all the most convincing errors: i.e. it has taken a truth, and blown that truth out of all proportion, until it has become indistinguishable from a lie.
It is true that in a decadent society, manners can become unmoored from morality. Think only of the gallant gentleman of our Victorian-era costume dramas, full of courtesy and social grace, who turns out in the end to be a cad. Meanwhile, the socially inept, brooding, and even boorish outcast, in the end is (inevitably) revealed as having a heart of gold.
This, however, is the exception, and a corruption. In reality, there exists an intimate connection between manners and morality, which was famously pointed out by Edmund Burke in his Letters on a Regicide Peace.
“Manners,” Burke wrote there, “are of more importance than laws.”
Upon them, in a great measure, the laws depend. The law touches us but here and there, and now and then. Manners are what vex or sooth, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or 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.
In an article in the journal Ethics, the philosopher Sarah Buss makes much the same argument, but touches more explicitly on the root that connects manners and morality. “Good manners,” she wrote,
not only inspire good morals. They do so by constructing a conception of human beings as objects of moral concern. To learn that human beings are the sort of animal to whom one must say “please,” “thank you,” “excuse me,” and “good morning,” that one ought not to interrupt them when they are speaking, that one ought not to avoid eye contact and yet ought not to stare, that one ought not to crowd and yet ought not to be standoffish, to learn all this and much more is to learn that human beings deserve to be treated with respect, that they are respect worthy, that is, that they have a dignity not shared by those whom one does not bother to treat with such deference and care.
The school of morality
What fascinates me about Buss’ argument is her use of the verb “learn”.
As in the cake analogy, we tend to think of good manners as somehow the culmination of a first rate education, a kind of certificate of accomplishment. Mannerly behaviour is the way in which the civilized man expresses the excellence of his upbringing. Viewed this way, manners are essentially decorative, a kind of glorious accretion and final flowering of civilization.
The truth, if not quite the opposite, is very nearly the opposite. And the truth is this: that our system of manners are the ordinary school of morality, the means by which anarchic man is first elevated from his natural selfishness and barbarism to something higher, as well as sustained in that position.
It is by means of its system of manners that a healthy society immerses and trains its citizens in profound moral truths attained at the expense of centuries of painful and often-violent experience, and deep ethical deliberation. Manners shape the mind and sensibilities of a society’s members according to those moral truths, even before they are capable of intellectually grasping them, and provide them with a template of behaviours by which they can express those truths in the concrete, lived circumstances of their lives.
We teach our children to say “please” and “thank you”, long before they understand the concept of gratitude. We train them to show deference to their elders, long before they understand the dignity of age and experience. We remind our elder children to look after the younger ones, long before have any inkling of the dreadful responsibilities and pitfalls of power.
To our children, many of the demands we make upon seem arbitrary and capricious. However, without their knowing it, we are educating them in hard-won moral truths. In time, if we have done our job well, these behaviors, at first practiced out of mere habit or fear of punishment, will (we hope) open their hearts to their fellow men, and grease the wheels of civilization.
The lifeblood of democracy
Sociologist Norbert Elias has hypothesized that the relationship between the development of a sophisticated system of manners and the development of democracy, is not accidental.
As Brett and Kate McKay summarize:
The rise of democracy required a people with a different kind of disposition. One that emphasized the ability to exercise foresight and put aside short-term impulses for the sake of long-term prosperity.
Manners developed as a way to create a citizenry with this requisite restraint.
Every time you say “Please,” ask someone to pass you a dish rather than reaching across the table, or keep yourself from interrupting during conversation, you endure an extra beat of delayed gratification. Every time you chew with your mouth closed or dress up for an event, you build a bit more self-discipline.
Manners, then, might best be thought of as daily exercises that strengthen the “muscle” of self-control, and even as preservers of democracy. For a people can only govern themselves, when they can, well, govern themselves.
This argument rings true. However, there is another, related connection between democracy and manners – one that penetrates to the very heart of how democracy functions.
A tyrant who possesses absolute power over his subjects feels no need to practice good manners. Why expend energy practicing the difficult skills involved in earning the respect and loyalty of others, persuading others of his viewpoint, or inspiring them to carry out his commands, when the mere fact and the fear of his power accomplishes all of this for him?
If a democracy is healthy, however – that is to say, if it possesses a robust and functioning separation of powers – even the most powerful politician can accomplish very little without the cooperation and consensus of others, including his political opponents.
Within a democracy, ruling by fiat and antagonizing one’s political foes may, in the short term, win grassroots support and project a sense of authority; but in the long term it will backfire, alienating would-be allies and isolating the proto-tyrant in an ever-shrinking echo chamber of sycophants. In order for such a proto-tyrant to succeed he must either dismantle democracy, or learn how to persuade others and to cooperate with them on areas of common concern.
The very best democratic statesmen are not those who know how to exercise power, as such, but rather those who balance a clear vision of their preferred outcomes and a firm will to accomplish them, with an extraordinary capacity to forge alliances and coalitions among a wide variety of people, including those with whom they have significant – even fundamental – differences of opinion. Doing so requires mastering an unbelievable number of complex and delicate skills, which is why master statesmen are so rare.
As it turns out, however, all of the tools necessary for learning these skills are contained within the system of “good manners” that so many people right now are so eager to disavow as superfluous and even counter-productive.
All those hundreds of rules we learned ever since we were children about how to give a good, firm handshake; to make eye contact with the person with whom you are speaking; to listen without interrupting; to self-police one’s “tone”, speaking confidently, but without anger or arrogance or sarcasm; to inquire after the welfare of the other’s loved ones with sincere concern; to show interest in their interests; to communicate, in a hundred different ways, that you respect the other person, and share certain basic things in common: all of these “arbitrary” rules of “mere” manners are the very things that make persuasion and collaboration – the prerequisites of democracy itself – possible.
What Burke wrote in a poignant passage in Letters on a Regicide Peace about how manners invisibly unite nations, applies equally well to relationships between persons. “Nothing is so strong a tie of amity between nation and nation as correspondence in laws, customs, manners, and habits of life,” he wrote.
They have more than the force of treaties in themselves. They are obligations written in the heart. They approximate men to men, without their knowledge, and sometimes against their intentions. The secret, unseen, but irrefragable bond of habitual intercourse, holds them together, even when their perverse and litigious nature sets them to equivocate, scuffle, and fight about the terms of their written obligations.
‘When conversation ceases, war emerges’
Right now, most everyone agrees that the divisions in our society have never been greater. The stakes never higher. Each side of the political spectrum is convinced – not entirely without warrant – that they are engaged in a zero-sum struggle to protect everything that they hold dear.
Faced with such vast chasms of opinion, and the growing sense that the “other side” poses an existential threat to the common good and our personal welfare and freedoms, it is understandable that a preoccupation with preserving the “good manners” that characterized allegedly more idyllic epochs can come across as fastidious and quixotic, and even cowardly.
And yet, for all that, I see absolutely no other way about it…if we are committed to making democracy work.
All progress in a democracy is predicated on the capacity of people with differing viewpoints to engage in conversation. In fact, you could argue, without going too far wrong, that our systems of manners are designed for one practical purpose: to facilitate conversation – that respectful exchange of ideas that opens up the possibility of mutual understanding and of collaboration on shared aims.
As Jordan Peterson put it in a podcast with Douglas Murray a few weeks ago: “When conversation ceases, war emerges.”
Right now, conversation – and even the capacity for conversation – is breaking down all across our society. Increasingly, people view it as a de facto act of treason for a person on “our side” even to speak with a person on the “other side” of the political aisle.
On the right – yes – this attitude is perhaps most explicitly embodied in President Trump, and in the rationalizations offered by Trump supporters for behaviors that most everyone agreed were, at a minimum, uncivilized or boorish. After all, the thinking went, what did his bad manners matter, if he was willing “to fight” for what was right…fire with fire, if need be?
On the left, it is perhaps most clearly embodied in the growing viciousness of cancel culture, in which the old norms about the presumption of innocence, the extension of the opportunity for apology and rehabilitation, and even moderate interpretations of the scope of freedom of speech, are increasingly viewed as an unacceptable compromise with the forces of intolerance and bigotry.
On both sides, it finds expression in an increasingly hostile social media and media landscape, in which exchanges between people of differing views are not – and, so the argument goes, ought not to be – about conversation or persuasion, but rather moral posturing and public shaming. After all, anyone who would support cause X (a horrible cause) or who has done Y (a terrible thing to do)has clearly forfeited the right to expect or demand politeness.
In this polarized context, it takes an act of courage to walk across the political aisle, ignoring the jeers of allies and enemies alike, to offer a friendly and a firm handshake to our opponents, borne of a sincere conviction both of the basic human dignity of the other, and of the practical necessity of finding areas of common ground, in the full knowledge that our handshake may well be met with a slap on the face, or worse.
And so, even as everything is falling apart around us, as mobs take to the streets, as our media hurl endless hand grenades into public discourse, as left and right strive to outpace each other in their race to the opposing fringes, we must continue to insist on this truth: that our political – and, yes, moral – salvation lies in some significant degree in doggedly pushing back against the forces of barbarism by quixotically preserving and practicing the “good manners” first taught to us by our mothers in the nursery.