Miss Manners: Changing notions of politeness reflect America’s steady progress
HOW did America, a generous country, end up with such ungenerous politics—and might that ever change? Seeking good cheer in this holiday season, Lexington stepped away from the campaign trail to consult an expert with a different perspective on society and its foibles. Judith Martin has been writing her “Miss Manners” column since 1978, and is syndicated in more than 200 news outlets three times a week. Her postbag is as heavy as ever: she receives some 50 or 60 letters and e-mails each day. Beneath Mrs Martin’s social advice lies a good deal of moral philosophy, not to mention wisdom (at 77, she shows no signs of retiring, though she co-writes columns now with her adult children). Her first two decades of correspondence are held at Harvard University, as a trove for future sociologists or historians.
In a pre-Christmas conversation at her club in Washington, DC, Mrs Martin offers hope that all is not lost when it comes to American manners, even if modern politicians seem to struggle with civility. First some bad news. Quizzed about readers’ concerns in this holiday season, Mrs Martin reports that partisans have found sneaky new ways to inject politics into Christmas, starting with the giving and receiving of gifts. For a few years now, the holiday season has brought letters about bossy leftists trying to ban whole categories of presents. Such scolds complain when their children are given toys that are aggressive or overtly religious, or when they are given too many toys (fuelling the sin of materialism). Sometimes the scolds write their own letters. One woman explained to Miss Manners that she and her husband boycott all goods made in a country “notorious” for poor workplace conditions and child labour, and yet “every year” their young daughter is given gifts from that banned country by her thoughtless grandparents. The idea of expressing polite thanks, then discreetly giving away the unwanted gifts, appears to be anathema to these new Puritans.
The political right is not to be outdone. Appalled readers frequently tell Mrs Martin about conservative relations who, in lieu of a gift, explain that they have made a donation in their name, then reveal—kaboom!—that the beneficiary is the National Rifle Association or some similarly provoking outfit. A recent letter came from an openly gay woman with relatives who regularly donate to “anti-gay” charities in her name.
To a political pundit, such complaints seem simple to explain. They look like fresh evidence of ideological divisions tearing at America’s social fabric—all of a piece with opinion-poll data showing that a growing number of Republicans and Democrats would be unhappy if their children married someone who backs the opposite party. Usefully, Mrs Martin offers a broader perspective. Yes, she agrees, her postbag and e-mail inbox include many grumbles with a political tinge. Common gripes include colleagues or acquaintances who blitz everyone they know on Facebook or by e-mail with adoring talk of a favoured candidate, or abuse for a political opponent. Readers seethe about unwanted invitations to political fundraising events. Sometimes the whole country seems to be spoiling for a fight. One December letter, from a cashier in a shop who greets customers with “Happy Holidays”, sighed about irate clients who worry about creeping secularism, shouting: “I choose to celebrate Christmas.”
Without doubt it is rude to use presents as a weapon, to impose opinions on those who have not asked for them, or to shout at those who cannot answer back. But Mrs Martin observes that these sad lapses are not confined to political partisans. Somehow, a modern reverence for authentic self-expression has reversed the rights and duties that go with gift-giving and hospitality. Now, Mrs Martin says, the “idea has gotten around” that recipients should have control over their presents—lest they be obliged to conceal disappointment with insincere expressions of delight. To Mrs Martin, this power-grab is rooted in selfishness, even greed. It is a trend that goes hand-in-hand with the readers who want to charge guests for holiday food (she has had actual letters asking how to dun Grandma for what she eats at Thanksgiving).
It is a similar story with political fundraisers. Her readers resent them, but in the same way that they complain about pressure to give to charities chosen by their boss, to local schools or even the neighbour’s son who wants money to travel abroad. “Everyone is fundraising for everything,” she sorrows. Many of her columns are variations on the Copernican theme that not everything revolves around readers, their brilliant children or their favourite causes, beneath such crisp headlines as: “Toddler’s Dance Recital Will Not Be a Hot Ticket”.
Still, a chat with Mrs Martin inspires hope. For one thing, she argues that in important ways the country has become more civil. Notably, bigotry—whether aimed at other races, women or gays—is increasingly understood to be rude, as well as wrong. For another, she observes that the failures of American etiquette often arise from great national virtues, such as restless ambition, candour and above all the principle of equality. The Founding Fathers, she notes, took great interest in etiquette—meaning rules of polite conduct policed by social disapproval—because they had just invented a republic which preferred not to use class hierarchies or the law to regulate speech and many individual acts.
In such a republic of liberties, the exchange of ideas and opinions is made possible by civility. The battle to ensure that those liberties remain both strong and civil is not won even today. Too many on the left seem tempted by rules to restrict “unsafe” speech. Lots of voters on the right are thrilled by the politics of insult and rancour. Some presidential candidates scorn civility as a sign of weakness. History suggests that those boorish politicians are misjudging a country that is better-mannered than this. Hope that history is right.
From the Economist print edition: United States