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Just Be Nice
When I was a child, attending grade school in Washington, D.C., we took classroom time to study manners. Not only the magic words we have already discussed (“please’ and “thank you’) but more complicated etiquette questions, like how to answer the telephone (“Carter residence, Stephen speaking’) and how to set the table (we were quizzed on whether knife blades point in or out). And somehow nobody—no children, no parents—objected to what nowadays would surely be viewed as indoctrination.
Today instruction of this sort is so rare that when a school tries to teach manners to children, it makes news. So when the magazine U.S. News & World Report ran a story in 1996 about the decline of civility, it opened with what it must have considered the man-bites-dog vignette—an account of a classroom where young people were taught to be polite. Ironically, this newsworthy curriculum evidently teaches a good deal less about etiquette than we learned back at Margaret M. Amidon Elementary School in the sixties, but that is still a good deal more than children learn in most places. Deportment classes are long gone. Now and then the schools teach some norms of conduct, but almost always about sex, and never the most important ones: Do not engage in harassment and Always use a condom seem to be the outer limits of their moral capacity. The idea that sex, as a unique human activity, might require a unique morality, different from the general moral rules against physical harm to others and harm to the self, is not one that public schools are prepared to entertain.
Respect for rules of conduct has been lost in the deafening and essentially empty rights-talk of our age. Following a rule of good manners may mean doing something you do not want to do, and the weird rhetoric of our self-indulgent age resists the idea that we have such things as obligations to others. We suffer from what James Q. Wilson has described as the elevation of self-expression over self-control. So when a black student at a Connecticut high school was disciplined in 1996 for wearing pants that drooped (exposing his underwear), not only did he claim a right to wear what he liked, but some community leaders hinted at racism, on the theory that many young African American males dress this way. (The fact that the style is copied from prison garb, which lacks a belt, evidently makes no impression on these particular defenders of the race.)
When I was a child, had my school sought to discipline me, my parents would have assumed the school had good reason. And they probably would have punished me further at home. Unlike many of today’s parents, they would not have begun by challenging the teacher or principal who thought I had done wrong. To the student of civility, the relevant difference between that era and the present is the collapse of trust, particularly trust in strangers and in institutions. My parents would have trusted the school’s judgment—and thus trusted the school to punish me appropriately—but trust of that kind has largely dissolved. Trust (along with generosity) is at the heart of civility. But cynicism has replaced the healthier emotion of trust. Cynicism is the enemy of civility: It suggests a deep distrust of the motives of our fellow passengers, a distrust that ruins any project that rests, as civility does, on trusting others even when there is risk. And so, because we no longer trust each other, we place our trust in the vague and conversation-stifling language of “rights’ instead.
Consider again the boy with the droopy pants. To talk about wearing a particular set of clothes as a “right’ is demeaning to the bloody struggles for such basic rights as the vote and an unsegregated education. But the illusion that all desires are rights continues its insidious spread. At about the same time, a fired waitress at a restaurant not far from Yale, where I teach, announced a “right’ to pierce her face with as many studs and rings as she wishes. And, not long ago, a television program featured an interview with a woman who insisted on the “right’ to be as fat as she likes. Rights that are purchased at relatively low cost stand a fair chance of being abused, simply because there is no history behind them, and thus little pressure to use them responsibly—in short, because nobody knows why the right exists. But even a right that possesses a grimly instructive history—a right like freedom of speech—may fall subject to abuse when we forget where it came from.
This proposition helps explain Cohen v. California, a 1971 decision in which the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a young man who wore on his jacket the benign legend F _ _ _ THE DRAFT. The case arose as the public language grew vulgar. The 19th and early 20th centuries offered a tradition of public insults that were witty, pointed, occasionally cruel, but not obscene or particularly offensive. Politicians and other public figures competed to demonstrate their cleverness in repartee. (One of my favorites is Benjamin Disraeli’s explanation of the difference between a misfortune and a calamity: “If Gladstone fell into the Thames, that would be a misfortune. And if anyone pulled him out, that would be a calamity.’) Nowadays the tradition of barbed wit has given way to a witless barbarism, our lazier conversational habit of reaching for the first bit of profanity that comes to mind. The restraint and forethought that are necessary to be clever, even in insult, are what a sacrificial civility demands. When we are lazy about our words, we tell those at whom our vulgarity is directed that they are so far beneath us that they are not worth the effort of stopping to think how best to insult them; we prefer, animal-like, to make the first sound that comes to mind.
In Cohen v. California, the justices were unfortunately correct that what the dissenters called “Cohen’s absurd and immature antic’ was protected by the freedom of speech. But it is important to add that when the framers of the Constitution envisioned the rough-and-tumble world of public argument, they almost certainly imagined heated disagreements against a background of broadly shared values; certainly that was the model offered by John Locke, by then a kind of political folk hero. It is unlikely that the framers imagined a world in which I might feel (morally) free to say the first thing that came into my head. I do think Cohen was rightly decided, but the danger deserves emphasis: When offensiveness becomes a constitutional right, it is a right without any tradition behind it, and consequently we have no norms to govern its use.
Consider once more the fired waitress. I do not deny that the piercing of one’s body conveys, in many cultures, information of great significance. But in America, we have no tradition to serve as guide. No elder stands behind our young to say, “Folks have fought and died for your right to pierce your face, so do it right’; no community exists that can model for a young person the responsible use of the “right’; for the right, even if called self-expression, comes from no source other than desire. If we fail to distinguish desire from right, we will not understand that rights are sensible and wise only within particular contexts that give them meaning. The Constitution protects a variety of rights, but our moral norms provide the discipline in their exercise. Sometimes what the moral norm of civility demands is that we restrain our self-expression for the sake of our community. That is why Isaac Peebles in the nineteenth century thought it wrong for people to sing during a train ride; and why it is wrong to race our cars through the streets, stereos cranked high enough to be sure that everyone we pass has the opportunity to enjoy the music we happen to like; and why it was wrong for Cohen to wear his jacket; and why it is wrong for racists to burn crosses (another harmful act of self-expression that the courts have protected under the First Amendment). And it is why a waitress who encounters the dining public every day in her work must consider the interest of that public as she mulls the proper form of self-expression.
Consequently, our celebration of Howard Stern, Don Imus, and other heroes of “shock radio’ might be evidence of a certain loss of moral focus. The proposition that all speech must be protected should not be confused with the very different proposition that all speech must be celebrated. When radio station WABC in New York dismissed a popular talk show host, Bob Grant, who refused to stop making racist remarks on the air, some of his colleagues complained that he was being censored. Lost in the brouhaha was the simple fact that Grant’s comments and conduct were reprehensible, and that his abuse of our precious freedoms was nothing to be celebrated.
The point is not that we should rule the offensive illegal, which is why the courts are correct to strike down efforts to regulate speech that some people do not like, and even most speech that hurts; the advantages of yielding to the government so much power over what we say have never been shown to outweigh the dangers. Yet we should recognize the terrible damage that free speech can do if people are unwilling to adhere to the basic precept of civility, that we must sometimes rein in our own impulses—including our impulses to speak hurtful words—for the sake of those who are making the democratic journey with us. The Proverb tells us, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue’ (Proverbs 18:21). The implication is that the choice of how to use the tongue, for good or for evil, is ours.
Words are magic. We conjure with them. We send messages, we paint images. With words we report the news, profess undying love, and preserve our religious traditions. Words at their best are the tools of morality, of progress, of hope. But words at their worst can wound. And wounds fester. Consequently, the way we use words matters. This explains why many traditional rules of etiquette, from Erasmus’s handbook in the sixteenth century to the explosion of guides to good manners during the Victorian era, were designed to govern how words—those marvelous, dangerous words—should be used. Even the controversial limits on sexual harassment and “hate speech’ that have sprouted in our era, limits that often carry the force of law, are really just more rules of civility, more efforts, in a morally bereft age, to encourage us to discipline our desires.
My point is not to tell us how to speak. My point is to argue that how we speak is simply one point on a continuum of right and wrong ways to treat one another. And how we treat one another is what civility is about.
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