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Manners, morals no longer a duo

 (The Spokesman-Review)
(The Spokesman-Review)
Judith Martin United Feature Syndicate

The problem might have started with the 19th-century division of child-rearing between parents, with the mothers being responsible for teaching manners and the fathers for teaching morals.

Fathers, who had previously been pretty much in charge of all character development and behavioral standards, not only ceded half their authority, but typically made clear that it was the less-important half. “You know that upsets your mother,” they would admonish errant children, thus implying that they were personally above a petty concern with etiquette, and that they sympathized with the children for not yet having outgrown maternal jurisdiction.

Violations of morals were treated more seriously. Lacking the authority to deal with such transgressions with the severity everyone agreed they deserved, mothers were reduced to threatening, “Just wait until your father gets home.”

The problem that set Miss Manners musing is not, for a change, the failure to teach children manners. On the whole, mothers were doing a valiant job of that until running the entire domestic realm was not just downgraded, but reclassified as an after-business-hours pursuit.

It is the disconnect between manners and morals that struck Miss Manners, particularly in the case of people who are presumed to have mastered the refinements of gracious living (as it was called when Miss Manners was a girl) and then get in trouble with the law.

True, there have always been seductive, charming villains and socially undesirable paragons. Miss Manners is too much of a student of history to believe in a time when everyone behaved well. When she referred to mothers routinely teaching manners, she did not mean to suggest that children were routinely practicing them.

The difference was that people took manners seriously, whether they practiced them or not, and they considered them related to morals.

It was not just fathers who distanced themselves from etiquette, but artists and intellectuals, who conceived the bizarre notion that not behaving well was a sign of superiority. Later, this was “refined” into the stupefying notion that do-gooders, because of their devotion to the betterment of humanity, were exempt from being considerate of others and free to berate those whose devotion to the cause they found wanting.

All this left a lot of manners lying around with nobody practicing them. Some of these (the ones connected with the use of costly equipment and rituals) were discovered and taken up — but by people who also saw no connection between the forms of etiquette and their underlying moral directives. So they prided themselves on being masters of etiquette while violating the basic principle of manners, which requires consideration of others.

It should therefore not surprise Miss Manners that they were willing to forgo other moral principles as well, including those that society governs with laws rather than rules. But it shocks her that anyone ever considered them well-mannered.

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