October 12, 2017

"Restraint in public life is not a foundation of civilization. It is civilization"

One would not expect an article about manners in Geopolitical Futures.  But George Friedman makes the very good case that manners are very much a geopolitical matter.

Manners and Political Life  Restraint in public life is not a foundation of civilization. It is civilization.

I married a woman born in Australia, of that class that emulated English culture...Meredith, my wife, grew up elegant and restrained. The enormous body of rules she called good manners rigidly shaped and controlled her passions, which were many. She followed the rules she learned as a child partly out of a desire for others to think well of her, partly because she regarded these manners as the laws of nature. Restraint and propriety were the outward sign of a decent life. ... Good manners allowed her to be both free and civilized, in the English manner. Her obsession with manners imposed a civility that shaped the way in which people disagreed....

I learned from her that there was a time and place for everything. I learned that without manners, however arbitrary they might be, life was chaos. I learned that combat, in speech and deed, might sometimes be necessary, but that it must be bound by the rituals of civility, or everything is destroyed....Manners make it possible to disagree within a framework of ritual that the disagreement does not lead to unhealable breaches.

I grew up in the 1960s, when manners were held to be a form of hypocrisy, the sign of a false and inauthentic time.  The argument was that honesty was the highest virtue. Manners restrained honest expression and therefore denied us our authenticity. What came of this was an assault on the distinction between what we are in private and what we are in public. The great icon of this was Woodstock, where the music was less important than the fact that things that had been ruthlessly private had become utterly public. The shame that is attached to bad manners was seen as dishonesty, and unrestrained actions as honesty. The restraint of manners became mortally wounded....

Today, we are surrounded by politicians who have decided that honesty requires that they show how deeply they detest each other, and a public that feels free to display its contempt for any with whom it disagrees. Our opponents have become our enemies, and our enemies have become monsters. This has become true for all political factions, and all political factions believe it is true only for their opponents. The idea that it is proper to hide and suppress our malice because not doing so is bad manners has been lost on all levels. With this has been lost the idea that it is possible to disagree on important matters, yet respect and even honor your opponent. Or, put another way, what has been lost is the obligation to appear to feel this way. Manners, after all, do not ask you to lie to yourself, but merely to the rest of the world.

The idea that manners create inauthentic lives, lives in which true feelings are suppressed, is absolutely true. But it forgets the point that many of the things we feel ought to be suppressed, and many of the truths we know ought not to even be whispered. Indeed, the whisperer, when revealed, should feel shame. Without the ability to feel shame, humans are barbarians. It is manners, however false, that create the matrix in which shame can be felt. When we consider public life today, the inflicting of shame has changed from the subtle force of manners, to the ability to intimidate those you disagree with. As Francois de La Rochefoucauld said, “Hypocrisy is a tribute vice pays to virtue.” Today, vice feels little need to apologize.
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What I have written here would seem to have little to do with geopolitics. It has everything to do with it. A nation has as its foundation the love of one’s own. That isn’t a saccharine concept. It is the idea that we are born in or come to a country and do not merely share core values with each other, but honor each other for being our fellow citizens, that our mutual bond is the fellowship of the nation. Underneath there may be much malice, but good manners require it be hidden. The collapse of manners undermines the love of one’s own and weakens the foundation of the nation. And since nations rise and fall, this is very much a geopolitical question.
Posted by Jill Fallon at October 12, 2017 1:32 PM | Permalink