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The Collapse of Manners

As a kid, I listened to my dad discuss politics and philosophy with people from all walks of life. After church picnics or town hall meetings, while visiting friends or grabbing coffee at a local coffee shop, Dad would strike up conversations. Sometimes those conversations could veer into controversial territory: presidential politics, abortion, church doctrine.

I knew my dad had strong convictions about some of these issues. But those convictions never pushed him into bombast or bluster. Even when talking to folks who were heated arguers, he never lost his cool. He’d smile, say something encouraging or positive, ask a question or two. He walked away from every debate and discussion having encouraged peace, gentleness, and a sense of dignity. Watching him was a little like staring at a photo negative of a Fox News panel.

In college, when we studied Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, I realized my father was the disciple of a rather ancient set of values. He was a gentleman: someone who still practiced the art of manners, and as such, he was both inheritor and promulgator of the classical conservative tradition. As Burke puts it in his classic work:

Nothing is more certain, than that our manners, our civilization, and all the good things which are connected with manners and with civilization, have, in this European world of ours, depended for ages upon two principles; and were indeed the result of both combined; I mean the spirit of a gentleman, and the spirit of religion.

Good manners and religious virtue extend far beyond discourse in coffee shops. But so often, this initial meeting ground is the arena in which our true character and the nature of our beliefs are fully revealed. And it seems that, as our society forsakes both the spirit of religion and the spirit of gentlemen, these initial meeting grounds are some of the first to suffer.

As professor and author Mark Mitchell has written for the Front Porch Republic:

Forms and limits are not welcomed in a culture that sees freedom as the highest good, a culture that fairly worships at the altar of individual choice. The history of the liberal project has been a steady and determined attempt to defy limits, to destroy forms, to expand the idea and practice of liberation to all spheres of existence. How can the idea of the gentleman, the essence of which necessarily depends on the propriety of limits, co-exist with the goals of liberalism?

At some point, I realized my dad’s discussion style was growing rather rare—especially, perhaps, in our technological age. While Facebook and Twitter aren’t to blame for our online belligerence and boorish behavior, they are ontologically geared toward hubris and navel-gazing. If I open Facebook, it immediately asks me “What’s on your mind?” and constantly encourages me to like, dislike, comment, or share: to actively express myself in one form or another.

Gentlemanlike conduct, on the other hand, requires humility. As Mitchell writes in another FPR post, “A sense of propriety, when properly formed and not merely a sense of personal dignity, requires an awareness of other people. A person with a well-developed sense of propriety makes other people feel at ease.” The gentleman, Mitchell writes, must also be amiable: “An amiable man is a good conversationalist who is interested in the people with whom he speaks. He is not self-absorbed nor is he so self-conscious that he refrains from engaging with others. …An amiable man is not a boor who cares only for the sound of his own voice.”

Our political moment—divided as it is—seems to have made a contest out of being controversial and belligerent. We’re always being dared by social media to share what we think, and the more inflammatory our thoughts, the more attention we get. This is exactly the sort of environment that gives rise to anger and division rather than empathy and peace.

All of this has been at the forefront of my mind amidst the heated debate surrounding Kevin Williamson’s hiring—then firing—by The Atlantic. There are many complicated facets to this controversy, and the best piece on the subject is (and will likely remain) Ross Douthat’s thoughtful Sunday column for the New York Times. Douthat, in his writing, exemplifies exactly the sort of decorum, gentleness, and dignity that my dad always used when engaging with political opponents. In so doing, he defended Williamson better than Williamson defended himself.

While I understand that “pushing people’s buttons” can be a sort of journalistic style, I would argue that it has done more damage than good in our political age. Commentators and politicians on left and right clamor to offend each other: they embrace the controversies of the Internet and throw their rhetorical barbs whenever possible—perhaps to get attention, perhaps in the name of free speech, but rarely (if ever) to actually persuade. Williamson has often said controversial things for dramatic effect (like, for instance, his suggestion in 2016 that struggling postindustrial communities “deserve to die”).

In a series of tweets published last week, Washington Post columnist Elizabeth Bruenig argued that this bluster and demagoguery has become a marketing model for the right, one that caters beautifully to their target audiences, but that translates badly for journalists who might want to reach more mainstream readers:

I agree wholeheartedly with Bruenig, but I also don’t think this marketing model is used exclusively by the right. Take this tweet, published as the Williamson affair unfolded, by author Jill Filipovic:

According to Filipovic’s tweet (which was liked nearly 400 times), the Republican Party is almost entirely made up of irrational sexist bigots. This is hardly the sort of thoughtful, winsome language that’s likely to build fans and friends across the political aisle. It is the sort of thing, however, that is infinitely shareable on Twitter and likely to appeal to those within one’s own echo chamber.

Someone might read Douthat’s Sunday column and feel convicted, moved to sympathy, or eager to hear more. But few would listen to Laura Ingraham’s latest diatribe on Fox News, or read Filipovic’s tweets, and react that way.

A lot of this nasty back-and-forth is built around a dangerous whataboutism: the belief that, if X says nasty things about me and my political movement, I am entirely within my rights to lob insults back at him/her. Such reasoning is not new; it’s existed since Adam said the “woman [God] put here with me” made him sin.

But the virtues my dad practiced in conversation—gentleness, humility, quietness—require us to lay aside whataboutism. They mean we have to assume that our own words are not the most important, and that being right is not the end or culmination of conversation. Fostering peace in discussions online and off obligates us to consider that we may actually be wrong about something—and that, even if we are right, hurting or offending our opponent is not a prize worth seeking. To quote St. Paul:

Romans 12:16-21—Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Ephesians 4:1-3—I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

Philippians 2:3-4—Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.  Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

Somehow, many of us right-leaning folks have come to see peaceable, gentle speech as “soft” or “weak.” We aspire more to Rush Limbaugh’s bluster than we do to Christ’s quiet example. And while I by no means expect a non-Christian to adhere to Paul’s admonitions, the many conservatives and Republicans who describe themselves as Christians should. No matter what the “PC crowd” says, we are called to a higher standard than whataboutism.

As we witness the collapse of manners online, it’s important to note that both right and left are culpable. But the responsibility for reforming manners and bringing back dignified conversation is ours; we cannot wait for others to make things better or to change the trajectory of our discourse. “So far as it depends on you,” Paul wrote, live peaceably with all.

Truth-telling is important. We must have courage in our discussions, and not back away from hard topics. “Gentleness” must not become an excuse for cowardly evasion. But in this particular day and age, we all too often label bombast and churlishness as “courage,” though nothing could be further from the truth. Rhetorical barbs and unkindnesses are just as cowardly as conversational evasion. They are both forms of self-protection, aimed more at elevating the self than at loving the others in our midst.

Don’t let Twitter or the television deceive you: manners take work. Kindness takes courage. And both are worth preserving and practicing in this fractured age.

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. She’s written for The American ConservativeThe WeekNational Review, The Federalist, and The Washington Times, among others.

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