The Oil of Society
by David Faulkner
Back during the first wave of radical feminism (I think we’re on the fourth now) one of my college English instructors held the door for a woman he didn’t know. The woman responded to his kindly gesture by slapping him across the face and calling him a bastard. So much for the mores of polite society.
The so-called free speech movement of 1964 chose as one of its points of attack against traditional society the whole idea of manners. This may seem a bit surprising unless we recall that honesty, or at least what the college students of the day thought was honesty, was one of the highest virtues the movement saw. Because the arbiters or hegemons of traditional society often covered up their true intentions with a veneer of politeness, the 1960s generation reasoned that, to the extent they prevented honesty, manners were bad.
There were two other factors at work as well. The first was the rise of feminism. Women had traditionally been treated deferentially by men in public situations. The woman who slapped my English instructor was asserting her equality with him. She didn’t need a man to open the door for her, as though she needed special treatment just because she was a woman.
Th second factor was the rise of the civil rights movement. Especially in the south the whites expected blacks to be on their best behavior around whites. Manners was a matter of deferring to your “betters,” and blacks were never allowed to forget it. In both these cases, then, being polite suggested the dominance or superiority of one group over another.
Besides all this, society was growing less formal. I don’t think I ever saw a man in morning church without a suit on until I got to college. Evening church was a different matter. In the morning you dressed up and, while some did it do show off, most did it because they thought God deserved their Sunday best. The large majority of people believed it was better to honor God by dressing up and allow some people to be a bit vain rather than treat worship as if it were any other event in our week and so dress the way we would at any other time.
There are really two kinds of manners. I call them “affected” and “genuine.” Vanity in dressing up for church is a mild form of affected manners. In its more severe form it manifests itself in either the deferential way blacks were once required to treat whites or in the courtly manners that are so well ridiculed in the comedies of manners written by Charles Dickens (Our Mutual Friend) and the light operas of Gilbert and Sullivan. Affected manners are politeness put on for the occasion. It truly is dishonest because, until it has been practiced for a very long time, it doesn’t reflect anyone’s true feelings.
The British have a term for affected manners. They cal it, “Putting on airs.” The term implies adopting the manners of a higher strata of society than the person who puts on the airs occupies. But in reality anyone can put on airs even with people of their own social class. The young people of the 1960s didn’t like people who affected manners. But they drew the wrong conclusion. They concluded that since some people used politeness to conceal their true feelings, all good manners actually concealed bad feelings and so manners needed to be discarded. The logicians call this a “Multiplication fallacy,” and it occurs more than most of us realize .
Genuine manners are, on the other hand, a manifestation of good morals. Morality, most broadly and most correctly defined, describes all the aspects of the way we treat other people. Our society is wrong to limit it to sexual conduct. The laws against murder, stealing and lying are as much moral laws as any of the biblical legislation against sexual impurity.
Morality has its basis in two impulses. The first is a high regard for God’s Law. The second is a genuine concern for other people. The unjust judge in Jesus’ parable from Luke 18:1-8 was such a dangerous character because he lacked both of these sanctions. He did not fear God and he did not respect people. In other words, the only factor he considered in making his decision was how that judgment might effect himself. Such a man might do anything at all.
Ideally people will be moral in their behavior because they both fear God and respect people. In actual practice one or the other will do. Some people treat others well because they fear what God will do to them if they don’t. Some, who don’t even believe in God, still have a high regard for humanity and believe that every person deserves honor and respect. It is morality that promotes genuine manners. Politeness reflects both our reverence for God and our respect for the human beings He has created.
Maybe we should hold the door open for everyone, men or women. Certainly the words of courteous speech are important and surely we should not interrupt when someone else is talking. But does dishonest politeness serve any purpose? Actually it does. In a fallen world, even affected manners can help people live together in peace. Good manners are actually the lubricant that keeps society running, that enables people to live and work together in peace.
The 1960s generation generally didn’t understand this. They thought expressing who we really are and what we really thought in every situation, regardless of who it offended, was the best way to live. Unfortunately they forgot that we are fallen human beings, so much of what we think and feel should never be expressed.. A society without good manners will be as dysfunctional as an engine without oil. In short, to be moral we must be polite, remembering that often the true feelings we would like to express are sinful. Good manners are, at the least, the lesser of two evils. Let’s bring them back.