Basic human decency is not absent from our culture if you look hard enough. However, it is strikingly lacking in the most visible elements of our culture. Politics, social media feeds, talk shows, music, movies, entertainment — these all proliferate words, ideas, thoughts, and images that objectify women, mock men, deride religion, denigrate individuals, devalue life, incite fear and anger, and erode human dignity. When it comes to the very things that trouble us most about the current cultural and political discourse (if you can call it that), they are in fact an outworking of our culture’s tolerance for and embracing of indecency and coarseness, its celebration and normalization of poor manners. That’s right — manners. I said it. My question is this: Who is teaching, modelling, and extolling manners today?
This question is not an appeal to nostalgia. I also weary of rants about “the Good Ol’ Days” and calls to return to “the way things used to be.” I want to go forward, not back. However, moving forward means asking some hard questions and making some hard choices. To go forward, we must think about what we are doing, how we act and react, the choices we are making for ourselves and our children and grandchildren. The most visible elements of our culture celebrate what is basest about us as humans. Why? Because it sells. Who will buy a video game if its characters are polite to each other, rather than rough and violent? Who would watch a two-hour movie where the main characters are generous, kind, respectful, and virtuous? Who would tune in to professional wrestling? The culture we consume matters. Based upon some simple and obvious observations, it seems that manners don’t. This is a problem that must be addressed.
Our human nature poses us a great challenge. On one hand, we are capable of great good: innovation, charity, and compassion. On the other hand, we love a good crash at the races, a fight at the hockey game, and the humiliation of another caught on tape. We laugh at profanity, irreverence, and impropriety. We are capable of creating a free society built on self-governance and the principle of innate equality, yet openly express hatred and assume innate inequality of free people on the basis of race. We cure diseases, yet take life senselessly. We liberate and oppress.
Look at history worldwide. The paradox plays out in our everyday lives as individuals. By the way we order our life together in society, we either advance the strengths of human nature or exploit its weaknesses. What we value manifests itself in how we think about one another, treat one another, and speak to and about one another. Decency matters precisely because this paradox exists. The purpose of manners is not to simply help individuals act nicer or create a façade of decency. Manners are about thinking better and living better.
In the Christian tradition, these ideas are captured in the words of Jesus. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus teaches that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, to do to others as we would have them do to us. Many people refer to this as the Golden Rule, but that rhetoric actually creates a problem. We don’t like rules. While this rule has made its way into our cultural fabric for a time, our culture appears to have largely rejected it. Many today think following any rule articulated by Jesus is naïve, antiquated, and ridiculous. Our culture has normalized mindsets like “do to others before they do to you” or “do to others like they did to you.” The Golden Rule has been trumped by slogans like “Fight for what’s yours,” “Don’t be a doormat,” and “Do what you want.” We see and hear without flinching violence, profanity, threats, and name calling.
My hope is that the brazen celebration of these behaviors is limited to the media — that in the home, many families still teach, model, and extol decency and manners. However, it would not hurt to make this a more public commitment, that we would challenge our leaders, entertainers, public figures, and spokespersons to to lead by example; to take more responsibility for their words, attitudes, and actions; to demonstrate that manners matter and decency is not dead.