Thursday, October 12, 2017

George Friedman On Manners

Yesterday George Friedman wrote a wonderful essay on the value of manners. Music to my ears, as the old saying has it. Posted on his Geopolitical Futures site the piece distinguishes between two cultures, ones that I and others have called shame and guilt cultures. Out of respect, I will not summarize the arguments. Everyone should read the whole article.

It begins thusly:

I married a woman born in Australia, of that class that emulated English culture. Loving her as I did, I did not understand the British obsession with table manners. For her, eating a bowl of soup was a work of art, a complex of motions difficult for me to master, and to me incomprehensible in purpose. From the beginning of our love, dinner became for me an exercise of obscure rules governing the movement of food to my mouth. It was a time when conversation was carefully hedged by taboos and obligations. Some things were not discussed at dinner.

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. The dinner table was where children learned that there were rules to a civilized life. For many, the powers of good manners crushed their souls, leaving them with little but the arrogance of having mastered the rules. For the best, manners provided the frame for a life of free will and self-confidence. 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 grew up in the Bronx, a place of fragmented cultures, of immigrants under severe and deforming pressure. There were many cultures – few any longer authentic, all in some way at odds with each other. Meredith’s table was a place of restraint. Mine was a place of combat. The hidden message about food was to eat as much as you can as quickly as you can, because who could really know when you would eat again? The table was a place of intellectual and emotional combat, where grievances were revealed, ideas were challenged and the new world we were in was analyzed for its strangeness. The grammar of debate took precedence over digestion.

I was especially happy to see that Friedman presents a clear understanding of the purposes of shame, what it means to have a sense of shame and how it’s perverted when people weaponized shame. I need not tell you that most of the denizens of the psycho world are absolutely clueless about what shame is. Those who pretend to be experts on shame seem invariably to know the least. They believe that you should overcome shame because it makes you feel bad. In that they are simple-minded and embarrassing.

Friedman distinguishes between a culture that tells us to be open and honest and shameless, regardless of the cost, and a culture that requires us to respect the feelings of others, even at the cost of not telling them what you really think.

In his words:

The obsession with honesty over manners hides something important. Depending on who you are, depending on what you say, and depending on why you say it, honesty can be devastating. 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. 


Ares Olympus said...

I recall Ronald Reagan saying one of his commandments was "Never speak ill of a fellow Republican." Oh, here it is, so that's a sort of issue of good manners.

And it reminds me perhaps that the virtue of good manners exists to reduce internal conflict within a certain group, and its purpose is in part to raise your group as superior to another group, who doesn't follow the correct manners.

The kneeling vs standing debate during the national anthem perhaps show the issue as well. Good manners has traditionally been defined as standing.

So it's as if some people at the dinner table are eating with the wrong fork in the wrong hand. Order has been upset, and made worse that everyone knows it is intentional and passive aggressive virtue signalling, suggesting they are superior for the new tradition. So others feel obligated to counter-protests, breaking a different tradition and leaving the table without being excused.

So this is how a guilt culture weaponize shame, rather than using it to find common ground by diminishing our differences.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Wonderful piece, Stuart. Thank you. A mutual understanding of manners (and practice) makes you more available to the people you’re with. Which is the point. Otherwise, you’re just eating.

Kansas Scout said...

Maybe it was Salinger that started this. In Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield was worried about people being "phony" Us Boomers picked that up in our search for authenticity and we wrecked our culture. I know I was a part of that when I was young. I managed to recover my sense of restraint and appropriateness during my college years and Grad school. I actually think our society began to fail back in the sixties and we have progressed towards this point as a sign of our disfunction.

Kansas Scout said...

But his main point holds true. We are no longer a homogeneous society that cares about each other. There will be hell to pay for all this uncivil discourse.