One must be blind and deaf not to recognize the near absence of civility in public and private discourse. Our public figures seem to revel in proving their facility with vulgarity and certain infamous but common monosyllabic profanities. To cite examples is an exercise in the mundane, t’is all too common. Nevertheless, the political and cultural movers and shakers seem to have mistaken profanity for profundity. Sadly, George Carlin and Lenny Bruce have emerged as the trailblazers for the modern standards of public discourse.
The general loss of decorum is not limited to the realm of verbal discourse. Come-as-you-are churches, pajama friendly and complete with donuts and coffee bars, are only slightly less offensive than some poor benighted sixty-five year old attending Mass in t-shirt, bermuda shorts, garters to hold up their sock, and sneakers gracing their feet. Dressing to reflect one’s station in life, or eve dressing appropriately for a given event or activity is a sensibility that is lost. Everyone now is on a familiar first name basis, a great eroder of professionalism and appropriate boundaries. The popular culture is filled with all sorts of crazy paradoxes. A quick trip to Yahoo and you will find displayed a range of stories featuring scantily clad young men and women side by side with the latest sexual harassment stories.
Let us give credit where credit is due. The new arbiters of social decorum are attempting to impose a new order based on the tenets of a watered down but still venomous form of cultural marxism. The old stations of life based upon profession, family, class, and wealth have been replaced with a new hierarchy based upon one’s membership or identity with an oppressed group. An entire ranking system has emerged based upon the concept of intersectionality where one is awarded social credibility based upon one’s membership in various and sundry “disadvantaged" groups. The more oppression points one can accumulate, the more virtue one possesses, and the greater leeway one has to act in a uncivil and barbaric manner. Happily, many do not make use of this leeway, those who do use this leeway are guided by the old cultural marxist principle that the personal political. Thus the rise of the identity politics of the Left accompanied by enraged indignation and public, often profanity laced, screeching.
The erosion of the older civility has been accompanied by an erosion of civilization. Politeness, proper manners, hospitality, and pleasantness were cultivated by many a Southern gentleman and gentlewoman. Such were not mere formalities or rigid leftovers of an outdated Victorian morality. They were the foundation of a more pleasant way to live and to interact with our fellow man. There was another reason as well. As one old Southern mother confided to me, “We in the South are polite and kind to each other; it keeps us from killing each other.” It also allows one to know where they stand and what their place is in society. Dick Gregory, the comedian and civil rights activist, once opined that while African-Americans had more freedoms in the North, they did not know where they really stood in Northern society. One’s liberty might be constricted in the South, but at least one did belong to the community and one knew where one stood. The little things: ma’am and sir, the use of mister, mrs., and miss, using the back door if you were a child or workman (No need to dirty up the great room or living room), reinforced the sense of one’s place in society.
This is not to say that there were not toxic elements in the social relations of the South. Here I am not referring to institutional factors such as Jim Crow or racial bigotry, which the Southern emphasis upon manners and decorum mitigated and ameliorated some of the injustices and slights embedded in Jim Crow. Like all humans, Southerners are not without sin. Detraction, disparagement, and gossip are not strangers to Dixie. They are, however, usually served with various helpings of sugar. The old joke is that a Southerner will kick off a round of gossip with, “I’d like to ask everyone to pray for my neighbor who …” or “Bless her heart …” Also, the southern gentleman’s great gift was that he could tell you to “go to hell” and make you look forward to the trip. Hypocrisy? Not so much as a respect for decorum and restraint. It is too great an expectation to believe that we can live in a world without some toxicity in social relations, but it is reassuring to know that in some places proper social decorum places limits on how far in the knife may go.
Civility is not just about the external forms. At the heart of being a gentleman or gentlewoman is the idea and practice where one places the comfort of others above one’s own comfort. Treating all folks with kindness, dignity, and respect can be trying and it often discomforts one. It requires a good deal of humility, and yes, noblesse oblige. One delays not in the performance of the duties appropriate to one’s station in life, but one does not brag on this either. Here the motto of the state of Maryland is appropriate, Fatti Maschii, Parole Femine, manly deeds, womanly words. The boldness and virility of men are needed in this vale of tears, but women are the heart and guardians of civility, and are the key to the rebirth of civility in society.
The older forms of civility are the antidote to the revolution. Reviving these forms will break our enslavement to the banal and the evil. The practice of the older civility will issue a strong challenge to the false assumptions afflicting the contemporary world concerning the nature of decency, probity , and the good. As the older civility gains ground, it will move the political out of the realm of the personal and back to its proper sphere. So much of life can be moved back to its proper dimensions. Disappointments are no longer treated as tragedies, our tendency to inflame our indignation is cooled, and we reduce the scope of the field open to insult, while reclaiming the place for hospitality, graciousness, and goodwill in all human relations.
John Francis Devanny Jr. writes and teaches in Front Royal, Virginia when he is not hunting, fishing, or otherwise messin’ around with his bird dog.