Manners of Speaking and Acting August 27, 2021
So many political issues comes down to manners. And that might sound like a criticism, but how people treat each other – who is cared for in how we speak and act, who gets space and the benefit of the doubt – is undeniably important.
Using the right words and formulations, respectful gestures, and protocols are important. They instantiate the dignity of those involved, but also allow one to hope that the manners in question signify a material commitment to the well being of the people being treated with respect.
Sometimes that hope is broken, and hypocrisy is revealed.
This is particularly rampant with Justin Trudeau ("you bought a pipeline" "you're still fighting Indigenous children who need medical care in court" "you've had two terms to lift the blood ban" – are just a few of the refrains). But I'd say he's a bellwether for our entire society in this respect. This kind of hypocrisy is everywhere, even if it's not as dramatic or well-documented.
A popular sign mass-produced in the US during the Trump era sums it up: "In this house we believe: black lives matter, women's rights are human rights, no human is illegal, science is real, love is love, kindness is everything.""
(How many households with that sign are down with Obama, who bragged about increasing US oil production every year he was president, or Biden, who is still putting kids in cages at the border, or pick a Democratic senator, all of whom voted for in favour of threatening to cut federal funding to any local administration that "defunds the police"?)
The expectation seems to be that the symbolic to *eventually* rearrange the material and systemic order. But this hope is perpetually deferred to some future point. There's always a new symbolic battle to fight.
At the highest levels, widespread hypocrisy is the result of opportunism on the part of powerful people, for sure. But for most people, the hypocrisy is just a preference for arenas that affirm our agency.
A storm of Twitter outrage can extract an apology and occasionally a resignation. But have you ever tried raising the welfare rates or lowering rents? Even large-scale, real-world direct action often can't get that done. Hard to blame people for wanting to feel -- and be -- empowered, but it's also easy to see how the material side of the equation is endlessly deferred.
(The material-symbolic distinction is imprecise. Getting someone fired or taking down a statue is, strictly speaking, material, but it's at the scale of the symbolic.)
This agency bias plays into broader, more troubling issues with manners as political signifiers.
One is that manners are frequently if not dominantly used as a class marker. As one rises through the class hierarchy, different forms of symbolic agency mark one's ascent. Middle class people criticize the language of working class people both because they want to be good people or affirm the dignity of everyone in the society, but also because that is the established cultural form for expressing their social position.
Nanners are also a key consolation prizes for being tasked with carrying out some isolated part of a grinding machine of global exploitation and death. Moral righteousness in a tightly constrained sphere is a salve for the soul subordinated to an otherwise all-consuming neoliberal grind.
We get up in the morning before we're rested, eat cereal that polluted the gulf of Mexico with a fertilizer-fueled algal bloom, donate the value of our working hours to investor profits, save a bit to invest so we can exploit someone else as we are exploited, and if we're lucky we can buy a house at a highly inflated price, and then drive to and from it in a climate-destroying vehicle because there's no reliable transit in that area.
And that's if we have immense privilege, relative to most of the world.
If we don't have the power to behave well, at least we can be well-behaved.
The "comedy of manners" endures as a genre because the gap between one's comportment in toward others in the world and one's inner thoughts and feelings is a universal human experience.
I think at least some of the nervousness what animates the enduring appeal of, say, Jane Austen, is more about the wide gap between how we present ourselves and who we really are. Our arc as a society tends to go in the opposite direction of a character like Darcy, who appears to be selfish and narcissistic but turns out to have a heart of gold and a strong ethical character.
What immense – if temporary – relief such a story provides!
The bifurcation of manners from material consequences is a bourgeois confection, perfected over hundreds of years. This exquisite vivisection is performed with a million manoeuvres and sleights of hand that are built in to our cultural patterns.
The core manoeuvre of these seems to me to be the individualization of virtue. The idea here is that virtue is judged not by the effects of one's – usually fractional – participation in systemic violence or exploitation, but by how one treats the people in their immediate surroundings, how many anonymous donations to charity one made, etc.
Individualized virtue is dramatically on display when some politician dies. Forgotten are the votes for wars that killed thousands or millions, free trade policies that consigned communities to evacuation or social blight, the policies that sentenced health care recipients to death, criminalized entire communities, and so on.
No, what really matters is that they really loved their family and were kind to their colleagues. And what indignation will erupt if one dares to suggest other criteria for evaluating a life lived!
Long ago, I remember talking to a cop at a protest standing in a line of others, all with riot gear, night sticks, and shields. I was asking him questions about why he was there on a personal level and he actually responded, saying he was doing his job but that he and many others give to charity. What a perfect example of bifurcated virtue.
And just a few days ago, journalists made a big fuss about photos of occupying soldiers carrying babies around. The exact same soldiers who were part of a force that has killed hundreds of thousands of civilians! Kids, parents, grandparents. It's an astonishing feat to separate those things, but it's a well-practiced to the point of banality.
It plays out on more subtle planes as well. A million excuses we invoke every day for not standing up for the broadest version that we can imagine of what is good.
For middle class people looking to do the right thing, putting virtue back into the collective sphere and redefining manners primarily as signifiers are key cultural challenges.
It takes a sort of calisthenics of the imagination, to keep that faculty active. Otherwise it shrinks from the task of widening the definition of good. Shrinking it and leaving openings for banal evils to creep in.
If we do define the good life, the good decision, as broadly and as comprehensively as we can, I think what will emerge is new kind of image of a life well-lived.
That image will look less like "they were kind to their family, volunteered and gave to charity."
And more like: "they contributed to making the world a place of greater solidarity, they expanded the norms of compassion, they actively pursued proposals that increased our power to live well."
Cultural change never happens just at the cultural level. The implications are material and systemic, and they require organizing and cooperation on a large scale.
This is hardly the only angle from which to approach the issue. But the starting point suggested by the above is questioning why parts of our life's activity are deemphasized or excluded from being evaluated as virtuous or well-mannered. And then exercising our virtuous imaginations.
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