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When Did Our Discretion Disappear?

Judith Martin

Goodness knows Miss Manners has no desire to jump into the national furor about adultery. Such an unseemly mess.

She thinks it best to turn away her eyes and discreetly pretend that she does not hear the nation going on about how who did what to whom should determine who can do what now.

But as she blushes and looks away, she is going to leave a thought that the debaters will take or ignore at their discretion (if any) but that is strangely missing from the debate.

This is a forgotten requirement of etiquette, once considered extremely important but lately flouted and condemned. Miss Manners believes that its absence has seriously exacerbated the problem under discussion and is now hindering dealing with it reasonably.

The item is - discretion. At least, that is what Miss Manners calls it. Those who worked successfully to all but drive discretion out of polite society call it lies and hypocrisy. It’s all that, too, but nonetheless necessary to spare the feelings of the innocent when dealing with the problems that the guilty create.

The current paradoxical attitude about consensual adultery - that it is wrong to do it but also wrong to punish it - has long confused even those whom it most directly affects.

So in modern times - at least until the issue arose of dealing with it in terms of military life - we have dealt, instead, with the issue of talking about it. “It’s not what you did - it’s the fact that you lied about it,” is the way it is generally put by voters to erring politicians and wives and husbands to their erring spouses.

In a culture already saturated with the idea that it is best to get everything out in public, from the foreign policy concept of “open covenants … openly arrived at” to the practice of absolution through televised confession, talking about a problem is considered a solution.

So on the home front, untrustworthy spouses have trusted the word of their aggrieved marital partners and started to talk. And talk and talk and talk. You will have to forgive Miss Manners for not being able to tell the difference between the penance of admission and the pleasure of bragging.

And, funny thing, it doesn’t make things better, except for the transgressors. They successfully obscure the blame for what they did by claiming credit for honesty and for (now) doing what their spouses have asked them to do. Having cleared their own consciences, the offending parties are able to transfer their punishment to the innocent.

On the professional front, it is even less successful. Shifting the evidence from the sin to its disclosure requires the adulterer to sacrifice the dignity and privacy of others, foremost the injured spouse and their children - in other words, to behave like even more of a cad. It stirs up vengeful people to tattle.

And most importantly, it obscures the difference between the non-consensual, which must be disclosed so that it can be prosecuted, and the consensual, which only makes things worse when it is disclosed and nobody knows what to do about it.

Dear Miss Manners: My son-in-law made the statement that purple-hue peas should be eaten with a fork, not a spoon. I said the peas or beans should be eaten with a spoon. Who is correct?

Gentle Reader: He is.

But don’t you hate it when the younger generation turns out to be right on matters of tradition? Miss Manners can only suggest that you try to get him on the rule against correcting one’s mother-in-law.

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