The Regime of Good Manners
What is this? Emily Fucking Post?
Writing on his substack Slow Boring, writer Matt Yglesias expresses skepticism about what he calls the “anti-racism of manners:”
The problem with this formulation is that we don’t have any other means of knowing how people feel about us than their disposition and behavior, which is called their manners. Having good manners usually involves showing respect or deference for others or the context in which you are in. Especially with strangers, who will not know if you are simply a casual sort of fellow or you are actually rude and mean disrespect, one usually adopts a more formal attitude. Most people can eventually sort of figure out when others don’t mean any harm and just are being familiar or when they are actually being genuinely inconsiderate or even cruel , but again, with new people its’s not that easy.
Manners are just how we are with others, so it makes no little sense to minimize them. In fact, to belittle the regime of good manners is just to signal preference a different set of manners: for instance, being “no nonsense,” unconcerned with petty details of propriety and politeness, and thereby counting on the fact that others will understand your ultimate sincerity and good faith. But again, we often don’t know when we’re dealing with a sincere and good person immediately, so we look to signs of behavior that show respect and consideration. These of course can be used demarcate the class structure as well. They can be shibboleths for deciding who is “not one of us,” but they also have real content. Not wanting to make others feel bad or isolated in a social situation is significantly different from knowing which fork to use. One is at the very root of good conduct and the other is a distant branch, a kind of flourish of mannered behavior. Bridling at having our manners corrected can also be a mark of the social order being violated in some way. It means we do not recognize the other person has any authority in that respect: “How dare you tell me how I should talk to you!”
Speaking recently about Isabel Wilkerson’s book Caste on the Honestly Speaking podcast, I made a similar observation that the book dealt a lot with situations that one could say involved manners. I did not mean this as a critique, exactly. Many situations in the book describe times when white people say or do something that offends a black person. Well, why does it offend them? Because it puts them in a certain, subordinate place in the social order. It does not show the same level of respect or deference that would be shown to white people. That’s not a small deal either, it’s a real matter of full social recognition: it’s literally degrading to be treated that way. Obviously there are also so-called “serious” issues of politics and economic structure, and we have to occasionally dispense with pleasantries in their pursuit. We cannot solve every problem by adjusting our manners, but we certainly try to ensure others do not regularly feel hurt or degraded. In a democratic society, where we are all meant to be citizens with equal rights and an equal claim on the power to rule, this has real political stakes: we should not be conferring permanent subordinate status on anyone. The sense that we are all bearers of these equal democratic rights is part of why we get so offended.
Of course, there’s a complicated class element to this, as well. My friend Jay Kang recently Tweeted something to the effect of that if you were an Asian person who felt offended about being mistaken for a delivery worker you were just offended that someone thought you were poor. There’s a lot of truth to this, but I think the thing is we don’t like to be associated with a certain, lower place in the social order just because of how we appear. It’s true that in principle there’s nothing wrong with being a worker of any kind, it should not insult our dignity, but that’s not how our society behaves, so if we get put in a low slot just on looks alone, that’s gonna sting. It doesn’t matter if its particularly lowly either, it’s also a question of it being determined by society’s rules and not by choice or aspiration. There are plenty of jobs that Jews have done traditionally that aren’t at the very bottom of the present social order, but nonetheless if someone called me, or even implied through clever innuendo, that I was a “Jewish pawnbroker” or “little Jewish tailor” or especially something like “money-changer”, it would be an obvious effort to demean me by wielding the power of an old, and often violent, social order. I would not enjoy being stereotyped by birth into some grubby or unclean form of work and thus to be thus reminded of having a caste position. Also, these things also wouldn’t be quite the same order of insult to me if someone used the more serious slanders of antisemitic discourse, like the ones that call Jews parasites or something like that, but it still wouldn’t be fun. (But to be honest, if someone called me a “little Jewish tailor” I think I’d probably laugh because it’s so archaic, maybe a sign that these categorizations don’t sting the way they used to for my people.)
Context also matters a great deal. Sure, the question “Where are you from?” can be a harmless way to get to know someone, but it can also be a way to make someone feel “unlike” their present company, situate someone in the social order, and prescribe them to certain roles and opinions and perspectives on the world. It can also be even quite menacing. I was recently speaking to a friend of mine who is an Asian woman and she told me how she was sitting on a bench and a man came up to her and asked,“Where are you from?” In the context of the present violence against Asians, this did not feel like a harmless query. She felt very afraid and was suddenly acutely aware of how she appeared different and was alone and isolated with a stranger of unknown intentions. She wasn’t sure if he was just trying to chat her up (not great either, we all know) or if she was being marked out as a racial Other. The fact is in this context it’s much more than extraordinarily rude—it is not a minor violation of manners but actually something quite serious—to approach someone in that way. Let’s say this person actually was just a well-meaning, neighborly sort who wanted to strike up a conversation, knowledge of good manners would have meant they would never have begun with that query because they’d know that was going to be potentially unsettling.
Learning good manners is just the art of avoiding giving offense or alarming others. It’s an essential part of being a person living in a civilized context, it is not remotely petty or shallow. Manners can, of course, become overly-formal and decadent and prevent genuine connections between others, we can mistake simple faux pas for more serious offenses, but they can’t be dispensed with. In fact, the pretense to authenticity can be just an excuse to get away with insults: we all know that guy or gal who’s taken on the role of “bad manners person,” who can’t be bothered to learn how others want to be treated, because they are concerned with deeper and more serious pursuits, or are “realer,” or are just a free spirit unfettered by the rules of society. Usually it’s just mildly annoying: an affectation that’s covering up a fundamental insensitivity. We often tolerate it because maybe they are trying to compensate for an honest deficiency through a little harmless play-acting. “Let’s all pretend this is fun for someone else’s sake” is just a constant condition of living in a society and we eagerly do it, because we hope one day someone will be similarly polite to us. They also might be a genuinely kind person who is just awkward. Bad manners can’t prevent a person from being loved, we respond to deeper virtues in others, especially as we grow more intimate with them, but they can prevent a person from being well-liked.
But bad manners can also feel malicious form time-to-time and we ask ourselves if this person using the excuse of having rough manners to just go around and be unpleasant and hurtful to others. Then they are abusing the regime of good manners by assuming everyone else will defer to them and just say, “Oh that’s just the way so-and-so is” and not react in kind. I’m sure we’ve all met people whose social demeanor we suspect verges on being slightly sadistic and who is getting away with it. Manners just mean there are less ways to both intentionally or unintentionally give offense. They remove intent through the adoption of simple convention. You can still improvise a lot: we can be extraordinarily mannered for ironic effect or drop politeness suddenly to break the ice and be funny. There are almost infinite variations of style possible within its strictures. It’s probably one of the most brilliant human institutions ever devised. Not something to blow your nose at.