10 September 2009


For much of my adult life, initially as a college instructor and then mostly as a senior administrator of an organization almost everyone called me Mr. Sarant. Now that am that much older and unaffiliated, I keep getting addressed by strangers as “George.” I find this annoying coming from someone young enough to be my son or daughter, particularly in situations when I am a customer and due a certain amount of consideration. Sometimes I get irritated enough to ask if we are having intimate relations given that we are apparently on a first name basis. But most are clueless nowadays that they are being offensive. Unfortunately this seems to be universal now, and not just in the United States but in other countries with languages that have a polite form of address, which has largely fallen into disuse.

This may be nitpicking, but to me it is symptomatic of the wholesale coarsening of society. There is endless vulgarity on television, and total loss of standards of any kind, when virtually anyone can be rehabilitated via publicity no matter what they have done. There is no shame, and if there is no shame there is no honor. If there is no honor the bounds of deference and trust are reduced, straining social bonds.

Between television and social networks on the web there is hardly any separation any longer between personal and public, and younger people seem to find nothing unusual about this, though sooner or later they are likely to come across a situation that will make them rue the day they sacrificed their privacy. Things have changed radically. When I was growing up you didn’t curse in front of girls, though by the time I was in graduate school they found this quaintly amusing. Now anything goes. There are no standards, no expectations of restraint, and as a result dignity is increasingly rare.

Social restraints are more than custom. They have a functional utility. They mitigate the impulse to behave selfishly and without consideration of others, and thus make a cooperative society possible. We see this in increasingly anarchic driving habits, and other forms of everyone-for-himself behavior. Manners, politeness, and proper behavior are not just pointless conventions, but essential to social cohesion. Convention and tradition are what instill good habits and personal restraint. This is important because if we do not have personal restraint, the result is a necessary increase in external restraint and control, thereby increasing the sphere of the state and limiting aspects of life that properly belong to ourselves.

I’m not suggesting a return to Victorian values, although we could do worse. But even 1950s values would do, reflecting a time when almost everything was better than any period since. Good manners are what make a good society.

1 comment:

  1. Well done George. To me, it all boils down to personal responsibility, with a lil' bit of disciline thrown in, for good measure. All though, not as eloquent as yours, I tooo had written a similar piece, with a dumb Texan twist. http://thdumboleasttexasboy.blogspot.com/2009/01/treat-em-like-theys-down-home.html