The virtuous culture warriors: eschewing civility to save civilization?

By Joshua London
web posted July 12, 1999

The other day, over my morning pot of coffee, I was faced with one of those disagreeable moments of forced social interaction that the "rat-race" world of cubicles daily thrusts on us all. Trapped in conversation with an acquaintance, I was wanting to indulge in some splendidly useless reading, another essay out of Stephen Fry's early book Paperweight. Pretending to listen intently, hoping that my eyes did not show the thick glaze of a franchise doughnut, my mind wandered.

The acquaintance was one of those rank-and-file "religious right" Washington-insider types who can not seem to find anything good to say about the District of Columbia but would never move outside its boundaries. He was obnoxious, loud, preachy, dogmatic, pompous and boring; not unlike the conservative breed of television pundits, William F. Buckley and George Will excepted.

He was fulminating mightily about the latest "battle" of the "culture wars"; what in particular he was going on about I could not really say. I seem to recall that the "soul" of America was featured prominently, though not to its credit. I'm am quite certain that I have heard this same splenetic bosh -- whatever it was -- countless times from the conservative television pundits. My immediate inclination was to lay a manful thwack upside his head; the authority of civility stayed my hand. Most unfortunate.

What was fortunate, is that the encounter kept me lightly pondering over the nature of "manners" and "civility" and their relationship to the "culture wars". I was afforded the opportunity to reevaluate a deeply held political conviction and to discover my initial rightness. To wit, order and civility is more important to American society than virtue and religion.

In Evelyn Waugh's first novel, Decline and Fall (1928), the head of a private school in Northern England, having learned that his daughter is to marry one of the schools' teachers calmly, reflects: "Grimes is not the son-in-law I should have chosen. I could have forgiven him his wooden leg, his slavish poverty, his moral turpitude, and his abominable features; I could even have forgiven him his incredible vocabulary, if only he had been a gentleman. I hope you do not think me a snob."

I am, of late, unable to find fault with Waugh's school principal. Order, civility, decorousness and the like are, in social or political terms, vastly more important than the moral disposition of any given individual, much less their personal relationship to God's scripture. Though Waugh's school principal was referring to class as much as breeding, the basic concept is still that of civility: a social hierarchy of norms, modes of conduct, and of time honored rules of etiquette. If all men were gentlemen and all women ladies, our society would be decidedly more pleasant.

Those who believe that the "soul" of America is in danger will most probably take great exception to this suggestion. Though no more, I hasten to add, than those who believe the onramp for the road to redemption can only be accessed from Washington's Beltway. Unfortunately people of the fevered brow, whether religious or secular, are generally as barbaric of manner as most eight year old school children. For most Americans, good breeding goes a long way, self-importance and shouting does not.

The manners of a society are its hallmark, its glue, its ritual, the medium in which it thrives or withers. To the thoughtless, manners are superficial; to the thoughtful, they reveal the substance of a society. In a culture as diverse as this one, they make it possible for very different people to live together in mutual consideration. Manners, by adopting a protective code common to all, facilitate the preservation of individual differences.

Manners are tolerance codified, patience embodied, kindness made the standard in little things such that it may grow to govern the big ones. Manners are the outward fruition of an inner discipline; manners are the fruit of proper breeding. Valuable in themselves, they provide an invaluable example in other realms of thought and conduct.

Manners are also boundaries; benevolent boundaries that give all permission to be kind, freeing us to do our best for each other. Just as a language sets boundaries that enables and guides all its speakers to new and eloquent heights, manners allow individual personalities and identities to flourish.

I'm sure many who read this will have a good chuckle over this. After all, how can such superficial "kindness" measurably improve our societal ills? To this I would simply remind them of the effectiveness of the "broken windows" theory.

Back in 1982, criminologists George Kelling and James Q. Wilson argued that serious violent crime was intimately connected to seemingly trivial public disorder -- aggressive panhandling, public drunkenness, graffiti and broken windows.

Such disorder sent signals to the law-abiding and criminal classes alike that the police were either unable or unwilling to maintain order. The former were intimidated; the latter were emboldened. Putting the kibosh on public disorder, they argued, would reverse the signals, giving the law abiding the courage to reassert themselves in their communities and giving the ruffians pause. A vicious circle of urban decay and crime would be replaced by a "virtuous" circle.

This theory has been more than vindicated empirically.

In 1994, for example, New York Police commissioner William Bratton and Mayor Rudy Giuliani adopted "broken windows" as the basis of their enforcement tactics. They started running in subway turnstile-jumpers and harrying the annoying class of squeegee wielders.

The results were dramatic: felonies in New York dropped by 50 percent and murders fell by 68 percent (1993-98). Among the happy byproducts of the policy, the police discovered that many of those they charged with minor infractions were also wanted for more serious felonies. In short order the broken windows were fixed.

Like fixing broken windows, requiring decorum, civility and a general minding of manners seem like minor and insignificant solutions. But they, too, send important signals and set wholesome boundaries on what is and what is not polite and proper conduct.

And so I write this as a voice of dissent from my fellow conservatives: With all due respect to those who make their living as professional culture warriors, the "culture wars" are not battles between the army of God versus the proponents of a Godless society. The real problem that the "culture war" metaphor is invoked to describe is about the decline of civility and good breeding.

Those who have set themselves the task of guarding American cultural values spend many a sleepless night with the dread that, should sleep overcome them, they will awake to the danger of finding the country awash with Godless pagans and immoral bohemians. This is silly. It is time they awoke to the danger of finding themselves a people of slatterns and louts.

Jack of all Tirades is Joshua London's regular column for Enter Stage Right.

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