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The Tyranny of Manners


Lots of smiling lately. What's going on with all the intense manners? I'm suspicious. In fairness, many people say we are becoming a ruder society of line-jumpers, road ragers, professional sports brawlers. True, yet, at the same time, I notice a politeness trend running concurrently. It is not appropriate to show anger or displeasure in this current. It is not good manners to go against the grain. Do your work. Enjoy all the consumer options. What have you got to complain about? Smile.

There is a scene in How Green was my Valley in which one of the sons of the Morgan family proclaims he will join the coal miners' union to fight injustice. His father chastens him for speaking when not spoken to; it's bad manners. The son, defiant, says good manners or not, he will support the union and move out if he has to. The father's breeding teaches no matter what the social circumstances are one should never defy authority with a show of impropriety.

The idea is that social codes are meant to keep us all civilized. Now what, you might ask, is my point? Is this man saying we should be rude to each other? Reach over the table to retrieve the salt? I am not. There is a place for civility, and the reason for it is to show respect and kindness to others.

But aside from a necessary binder of respect, the enforcement of good personal manners is used for a far more insidious end. As papa Morgan showed in the movie, manners also keep us from speaking our minds, from speaking up against injustice, for taking on unjust authority. They are appropriated as a form of social control.

Two employees reflected the cowed among us. One has a professor who taught her that we should not complain about the lack of jobs in this economy, as "there are others less fortunate than you." In other words, shut up, and don't make trouble. The other was shocked to hear Michelle Obama wrote a college paper once condemning white America for its ways of keeping minorities in poverty. This employee thought that was wrong of her - in other words "manners before morals."

As antivirus software protects our computers from threats, threats to the established order are met with social "viruses," public disapproval, as the main trunk of society clamps down on anyone not with the program.

While manners are the ostensible target, I believe the real threat is those who dare to defy power. That means social and political power, but, in its basest form, it is economic power. That is the greatest threat to those in power.

Something far worse than lack of protest is going on. A loss of individualism is happening to us, the unsuspecting victims. We know what a repressed culture America created under The early Cold War, and its forms returned with the age of George W. Bush and Globalization. In favor of "good manners" many of us are forgoing creative, challenging, and, yes, confrontational thought. We are becoming a country of mesmerized consumers lulled into contentment by shopping networks rather than human networks.

I don't like what I see. It makes the Reagan era look radical. Afraid to speak up for fear of being impolite, most of us keep quiet, while our souls petrify to stone. I won't be intimidated. I won't take it lying down. And I'm not smiling.

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