“What we need in the world is manners … I think that if, instead of preaching brotherly love, we preached good manners, we might get a little further. It sounds less righteous and more practical.”
My grandmother has this quote, from Eleanor Roosevelt, above the stove at her home. In many ways, it embodies my grandmother. She is a stickler for rules. Her guest rooms are covered in sticky notes reminding her grandchildren to pick up after themselves. The same “make the bed” Post-it has remained affixed to the bathroom mirror for as long as I can remember. My dad used to regale us with horror stories about how condiment containers could not be present at the dinner table; their contents had to first be transferred into serving dishes. Seven-year-old me was glad this was not the case in my household.
Nevertheless, a strong sense of propriety trickled down into my home. It became most apparent when traveling. My dad has two rules regarding the airport: “Dress like you’re going to run into the most important person you know there” and “pack like TSA is going to open your luggage in public.” To this day, I travel in khakis and a button-down, to be prepared no matter whom I run into. In general, my father’s traveling philosophy can be boiled down to: “The airplane isn’t your living room.”
This even extends to my general life. I refuse to wear sweats anywhere other than my room and the gym. The idea is that life is organized, and different clothing helps organize my life into segments. I wear khakis to class, a suit to church and athletic clothes to the gym. However, the reason I don’t wear sweats to class is that the public sphere is not mine to command. I do not get to decide the terms on which I engage with other people. To wear sweats is to think that I am the axis around which the world spins, to think that my comfort is the only consideration that matters.
Many people think of manners as dumb social conventions that hold no meaning. I concede that etiquette regarding which piece of silverware to use can border on the sadistic. But having rules that govern public interaction is vital to living a proper life. Civilization is not something that just emerges spontaneously; it requires work for us to live harmoniously.
Manners, at their core, are a recognition that others are worthy of my respect and consideration. In waiting for everyone to be served before I eat, or in letting the elderly get food before myself, I am showing that the satisfaction of other people matters more than my desires. In dressing nicely for class, I am showing that respect for my peers and professors matters more than my desire to be comfortable. It subordinates my own wishes to the good of others.
All of this brings me, strangely enough, to the coronavirus. I have seen countless videos of students my age going on spring break as if we weren’t in the midst of a global pandemic. I have seen people hoarding supplies as if zombies were knocking down their doors. On top of these actions being morally egregious, they also represent bad manners. These things represent the fundamental breakdown of consideration for others. Hoarding baby wipes is not only stupid, but also removes other people who might need them from moral consideration.
This logic extends to public discourse as well. Being crass and cruel might seem justified or necessary, but it removes the object of your scorn from the category of personhood, worthy of dignity and respect. Personal and character attacks on ideological enemies are a profound act of dehumanization. It states that my adversary is not worthy of a certain moral minimum of dignity and respect.
The project of liberalism is to perpetually expand the circle where violence is not an acceptable action. Historically, when ideologies clashed, wars were waged. Modern civilization has lowered the stakes of debate by taking violence off the table. As strange as it may seem, good manners are central to this project. Humans are habitual creatures. In describing Aristotle’s philosophy Will Durant writes, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” We must have certain truths ingrained in us by rote, not by truth. Manners force us to include others, even those with whom we disagree vehemently, into our considerations. It forces us to recognize them as people, with their own needs and desires. This is what civilization, the shared human project, depends on. Without it, we are warlords standing atop our ramparts, mistrustful of all and seeking only our own gain.
Collective action requires a set of rules of behavior through which we can limit our own desires and appetites, even political appetites for progress. The world is a fragile thing, and these past few weeks can show what happens when it bends. It is up to us to ensure it does not break.
TOMMY SCHACHT is a junior in Pierson College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .