Few states are ruined by any Defect in their Institution, but generally by the Corruption of Manners; against which, the best Institution is no long Security, and without which, a very ill one may subsist and flourish.—Jonathan Swift
Liberty cannot be preserved, if the manners of the People are corrupted.—Algernon Sidney
There is a common perception that politeness is only a means to an end, that some more substantive goal, some broad vision of justice or the good society, is what we are really after, and being either polite or rude about it is just a matter of tactics—we should do whatever works. A number of commentators have responded to calls for civility with the contention that, when injustice is afoot, civility will not get the job done. Civility is racist. Civility preserves the status quo. The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and every other significant quest for social justice, this argument goes, were built on assertiveness and steadfast resistance, not servile civility. The contemporary anti-Trump resistance fighters, for example, believe that fascism is on the march and that minorities and immigrants are in mortal danger. For them, we are in the throes of a moral crisis of the sort that requires harsh words and bold acts. When deep kindness is lacking, superficial kindness should take a back seat.
But they are making a serious mistake.
Some might view democracy, like politeness, as just one means to an end, such that when a democratic process yields an incorrect or unjust outcome—the election of Donald Trump, for example—we are justified in overthrowing the system and installing something (or someone) else. Or some might argue that free speech is fine and dandy when our side is winning the war of ideas, but if the other side begins to gain too much of a foothold, we need a good, old-fashioned crackdown on dangerous ideas. (This is an only slightly exaggerated version of Herbert Marcuse’s argument in his infamous 1965 essay, “Repressive Tolerance,” which provides a blueprint for modern day political correctness and opposition to free speech.)
But Marcuse and others like him are mistaken to assume that they already know what a correct or acceptable substantive outcome entails and can therefore judge the results of a process by that predetermined metric and, if those results fail to measure up, assume that the process isn’t working and must be rejigged or even discarded altogether. Democracy and freedom of speech are needed precisely because there is no predeterminable correct answer to such questions. We cannot guarantee that any subset of us can be trusted to distinguish truth from lies and so, unless their speech puts others at immediate risk, we grant people the freedom to speak their minds. If we notice flaws in the process—certain legitimate votes are systematically excluded or certain views unjustly silenced—we may attempt to fix the process—but not abolish it.
Unlike democracy or freedom of speech, politeness is not often seen as a virtue to which we should adhere, irrespective of circumstances. This is because our conception of politeness and its significance to our political well-being is impoverished. But a far more robust understanding of politeness was articulated by Anthony Ashley Cooper, Third Earl of Shaftesbury, in his 1711 Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times. While some—sociologist Norbert Elias, for example—may view the imposition of elegant manners as wedded to the exercise of power, authority and repression, for Shaftesbury, politeness is a progressive force, increasing human liberty.
Centuries of domination by the Church and the Crown, Shaftesbury explains, had set the vectors of human action. Pervasive social hierarchies, courtly manners and theology all ensured that the most meaningful aspects of our lives were determined from above, leaving us with not many important choices to make. But, as the influence of these erstwhile sources of unquestioned authority began to decline in Shaftesbury’s England, humans could enjoy new liberties, which meant new opportunities and responsibilities. People were now increasingly free to make their own rules and regulate their lives as they saw fit and this produced an entirely new domain of unsupervised, underdetermined interactions. A new type of creature—the gentleman—emerged and created new habitats—theaters, cafes, clubs, gardens and the like—in which to mingle with his equals.
Politeness, for Shaftesbury, governed the terms of such interactions. Freedom compelled the exercise of judgment and taste. People now had to make consequential decisions about how to act morally and elegantly towards others. Such virtues do not come naturally to us, Shaftesbury argues. For this reason, gentlemen had to become learned in philosophy and the arts: philosophy taught morality, while the arts inculcated an appreciation of beauty and a standard of taste. Taste itself was a faculty that could only develop in a free society. Under regimes that impose monarchical and theological strictures on their citizens, the opportunities for taste to manifest are inherently limited. But, with liberty, taste becomes indispensable. It fills the empty canvas with gridlines. It fashions public culture. It forestalls anomie.
Politeness, for Shaftesbury, serves a role similar to that of religion for Alexis de Tocqueville who writes, a century later: “Despotism may be able to do without faith, but freedom cannot. How could a society escape destruction if, when political ties are relaxed, moral ties are not tightened? And what can be done with a people master of itself if it is not subject to God?” Shaftesbury is already one step ahead of Tocqueville. For him, both the Crown and the Church have lost their moral authority. When religious norms no longer govern conduct, what can furnish moral boundaries and standards of deportment? A shared public culture, fashioned by politeness.
Shaftesbury’s politeness was not just a matter of please, thank you and the occasional curtsey. Every possible interaction and aspect of self-presentation provided an occasion to demonstrate politeness. Politeness reveals its presence or absence, he writes, “in that wch every minute offers & gives opportunity. Eating. Talk. Story, Argument, the common Entertainment, Mirth & Laughing, Voice, Gest, Action, Countenance.” We display politeness in how we speak, what we say, our tone of voice, our accent, our grammar, how we stand, sit, dress, walk and dance, our facial expressions, gestures, sportsmanship, table manners, and behavior at the theater and the concert hall and at parties both as hosts and as guests. These little details matter. Fail to attend to them, and our whole social edifice begins to unravel.
To conclude that Shaftesbury’s vision of politeness is that of a finicky fuddy-duddy from a superseded epoch is to ignore our own deepest intuitions in those moments when they remain uncorrupted by our affected apathy, anti-elitist posturing and other contemporary ideological blinders. Imagine a modern version of the kinds of faults Shaftesbury abhors. Picture a man—but no gentleman—who saunters onto a bus or subway, slouches down in his seat, puts his feet up onto an adjoining seat, blasts his music out at a deafening volume instead of using headphones or engages in loud, profanity-laced conversations. Or imagine an athlete who struts, taunts others and showboats. Or a trashy, nouveau riche reality TV queen, flaunting her gaudy material possessions. Or the scantily clad woman on the dance floor, simulating sex and/or thrusting her butt out with every beat. Some people will argue that such overtly sexualized displays are no big deal, but in our hearts, I contend, many of us feel deeply uncomfortable with it. And, if we don’t, we should follow Shaftesbury’s prescription—steep ourselves in philosophy and the arts in order to cultivate judgment and taste.
Shaftesbury’s gentleman might also seem like a relic of a time when class determined social standing. But Shaftesbury’s gentleman was made, not born. Shaftesbury contrasted the comparative equality of his England with contemporary France, which was still inordinately attached to the kinds of courtliness and hierarchy that stood in the way of his ideal republic. Shaftesbury’s ideal was not the stratified class societies of Old Europe, but ancient Athens, where freedom and self-rule gave citizens the impetus to develop the skills of rhetoric and oratory necessary to the kinds of free-flowing interactions and exercises in dialogical persuasion that might have taken place in the Athenian agora. Indeed, without such skills—the ability to meet, confer, agree and clash in a civil fashion—democracy itself would be impossible. Though, just as in classical Athens, not all the groups we would recognize today were given equal status within Shaftesbury’s paradigm—women, for example, were not—his vision is fundamentally democratic and progressive.
Politeness is not a superficial affectation we can turn on or off, as occasion demands. Politeness is not just a way of doing things; it is the thing we do. It is what we must do for a democracy to function, for all viewpoints to be respected, all voices to be heard. It is what we must do to transform ourselves from mere cohabitants of the same geographical space to citizens of a single republic with a shared culture. As Hegel argues, if individuals do not first come together organically in a civil society, which, in turn, forges the institutions of state, they will find themselves looking at the state as if it were a foreign entity, an imposition, an alien presence. This is the kind of political alienation so many of us feel today. Our politics will never feel like our own, if we do not first undertake the difficult labor of becoming, once again, a civil society, a culture, a people. And we will never become a people again if we do not embrace the shared set of expectations and ritualized norms of behavior that we call politeness. The failure to do that will bring about, to quote José Ortega y Gasset, “the absence of norms and of any possible appeal based on them”—that is, barbarism.
But are we to be polite in the face of racism, fascism, etc.? Are we to stand by and smile politely, while neo-Nazis parade along our thoroughfares? Politeness should not be mistaken for meekness, servility or acquiescence in evil. Jesus may have advocated turning the other cheek, but, importantly, he believed that the meek will—and should—inherit the earth. More importantly, the problem with allowing people to bend the rules in the presence of injustice is exactly the same as that produced by suspending free speech when too many falsehoods are being disseminated: there is no one we can trust to draw such distinctions. If speech or conduct is beyond the pale or outside the Overton window, democracy will take care of it: polite disregard will accomplish much more than the kinds of protests, callouts and freak-outs that only fuel the fire, alienating potential allies. Even when it comes to just causes, few will be more amenable to screaming, screeching, hectoring, browbeating and bullying than to skillful oratory, sharp wit and noble acts and deeds. It is ultimately the latter—not the former—that won hearts and minds during the Civil Rights era. Martin Luther King Jr.’s I have a dream speech won and continues to win more converts to his cause than any boycott, sit-in or protest ever could. Conversely, bullying, demonization, physical and online mobbing, name-calling and profanity has led to the rollback of some of the victories of the Civil Rights Movement, alienating some of those who voted for our nation’s first black president in 2008 but, in 2016, cast their votes for Trump or even—in extreme cases—began to support white supremacy groups that had been dying a slow, natural death over the preceding decades. As multiple studies have shown (see here, here and here), pressurizing people to fight racism routinely backfires. Just as dropping bombs on foreign nations creates lifelong enemies rather than converts to democracy, dropping F-bombs on fellow citizens spreads hatred rather than makes converts to anti-racism. Lecturing, demonizing and lashing out at people have never convinced anyone of anything. Politeness is not only nobler but also far more effective, and—like rudeness and vulgarity—politeness is contagious.
Whatever we may think of Trump’s politics, if we respond to his schoolyard provocations with outrage, we not only give him the attention he craves but contribute to lowering the tone of our political discourse. We are doing damage that may take decades to repair. Against opponents such as Trump, silent supercilious smiles and polite disdain can achieve political victories, without robbing us of our dignity. Ignoring a troll requires patience, but so does waiting to dig in to one’s food until everyone else has been served. Politeness and our long-term collective interests require patience in both cases—a patience in short supply in this age of instantaneous communication and instant gratification.
Let us, then, make a habit of saying please and thank you. Let’s be gallant. Let’s anticipate others’ needs and take them into consideration. Offer seats to those who might be more in need. Hold doors open. Sit up straight. Take our feet off the seats. Clean up after ourselves. Pay attention to the way we walk. Move decorously. Dance in a dignified manner. Dress in clothes in which we wouldn’t be embarrassed to be seen by our bosses or our grandmothers. Make an effort to appear well-groomed. Cut out the street talk, slang and profanity. Employ the best grammar we know how to employ. Enunciate. Use a tone of voice appropriate to the context. Avoid broadcasting private conversations. Keep our music to ourselves. Listen to others when it is their turn to speak. Interrupt, if at all, politely. Disagree thoughtfully and respectfully. Abide by the golden rule. Be humble. Be kind. Be courteous. Be considerate. Be generous. Be good. Be better.