On the Nature of What Passes for Good Manners

On the Nature of What Passes for Good Manners The Garrett Ashley Mullet Show

Do good manners exist anymore? And what are they if they do?

America is divided on seemingly every question of truth and morality. As a result, what is meant by being polite or rude can be relied on to differ as well. 

Depending on the religion and politics of the part of the country you find yourself in, and depending on the people you are interacting with there, what might pass without notice in one place will be seen and heard as very offensive in another. 

In a rather progressive setting, for instance, you will probably find that it is considered rude to not use preferred pronouns and celebrate when a gay or lesbian couple announces their engagement.

In more conservative settings, meanwhile, efforts at modifying, and especially liberalizing the tone and tenor of any convention whatsoever will be met with indignation. 

To disagree substantively about politics and religion in many settings may be considered impolite. Passions will likely be excited. People will get upset, and everyone will feel uncomfortable. But is that all there is to it – whether people are made uncomfortable or not?

“Love is not rude” and “it is not irritable or resentful.”

So writes the Apostle Paul in his first epistle to the church in Corinth in what we typically refer to as “the love chapter.” To my mind, this more than suggests that there is such a thing as rudeness, however its exact definition might differ from place to place and depending on your company.

And if rudeness exists, so also must its opposite. But that is just another way of saying that politeness and manners exist in some objective sense.

Where Paul writes that love is not rude then, we have to conclude also that love is polite and has good manners. Inversely, we must assume that actual good manners are aligned with love or else they are a meaningless waste of time, nothing more than pomp and circumstance, “like a proud music that draws men on to die.” 

As with good manners, defining love can prove tricky depending on our context. What passes for love in the mainstream and what God tells us about true love are more and more two wholly different things, whether in circles which constantly want to push boundaries or squares that stubbornly insist on the maintenance of lines they are unable to account for other than by citing convention and tradition.

Perhaps these two things are closely related, though – our changing definitions of love and our changing definitions of good manners.

Proverbs comes to mind where we are told that open rebuke is better than hidden love. And in the very next verse we read “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.”

This too should be instructive when we try to define good manners, since we need to define these things in order to learn them and teach them to our children. 

In the Deep South, for instance, it is usually understood that when someone says “Bless your heart” what they really mean is that someone is being foolish and naïve. And people in that part of the country say “bless your heart” instead of calling the person simpleminded to their face because of the kind of manners which are understood as proper. For my part, I am not so sure I want to teach my children that sort of manners.

But when there is a shared understanding of how things will be taken, and when true love is understood as the driver of the comment, we are not easily offended. Moreover, even when the meaning is less than clear, love will see us not taking offense too easily anymore than risking that we will give offense without careful consideration and due cause.

In sum, the fact that love is not rude therefore means we do not give needless offense. But what about when we have to risk the other person being upset with us by disagreeing with them because we do love them? This is where things get tricky. And herein lies dilemmas which must be resolved. Yet without a fixed and objective standard of truth, goodness, and beauty, they can never be resolved, and we will argue endlessly about what is or is not polite.

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