Events in Washington DC on January 6th provided evidence if it were needed that the divisions in American society have further widened since last November’s elections and reached a visceral fever pitch. With increasing frequency, I find myself quoting Professor Liam O’Dowd whose career studying conflict in Northern Ireland and beyond has spanned five decades. In an address to colleagues the occasion of his retirement from Queen’s, Liam described how, when he began to write about the troubles, his international peers spoke of this place as some sort of relic, citing the medieval-style religious rhetoric and the visceral identitarian hatred of ‘the others’ and lack of discourse on shared economic interests characteristic of modern democracies. Prof O’Dowd noted that we can now see that this place was more “portent than relic”, what with the rise of identity politics across the world, people’s self-selection into social silos which reinforced those identities and the breakdown of civic discourse between groups with opposing political visions.
As a start-of-term ice-breaker I ask my first year students to consider what they would say to someone who had just awoken from a twenty-year-long coma to explain the world to them as they find it in 2021. There was plenty discussion of technology and of the pandemic, and one student noted that you’d probably need to start by explaining how all the machines they’re hooked up to kept them alive for two decades. To my mind, how people talk, online and off, would be one thing that the miracle coma survivor would ask about. What happened to manners, formality, decorum, civility or whichever loaded term you prefer. Why aren’t the people on television and radio polite to one another the way they once were?
It seems politeness lies amid the collateral damage of polarisation. Opponents stop being nice to one another when they see the other not as potential ally, someone they might one day persuade, but as someone whose existence threatens theirs. Some miss it more than others: for many, orientation towards politeness is bound up with the wider thrust of what they believe.
Let’s take the example of swearing. Swear words have found their way into the very settings whose formality and solemnity used be affirmed by their absence. What would have once been called profanity is now everyday parlance in work and in media, spoken and print. The US just elected one of its least quotable presidents, but among his more memorable lines was the description of the passing of Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act as “a big f***ing deal” in 2010. Seven years later, when preparing to run for president, Kamala Harris appeared on a live podcast recording the same week congressional Republicans were attempting to repeal Obamacare. Seemingly exasperated with a rhetoric which downplayed the importance of affordable health insurance as a means of accessing care, the then Senator retorted: “You might as well say people don’t starve because they don’t have food – what the f*** is that?” She got a cheer.
Not long ago, no matter how earnest and sincere a point a politician made, if they resorted to an f-bomb, that would be all that would be reported and their argument would be eclipsed. Debating coaches often tell students to think about their manner and their matter; insufficient attention to manner will undermine your matter. In other words, it doesn’t matter how correct your point is if you don’t say it well. But in the current era, manner and matter are of a piece.
Peppering every sentence with swear words would be ineffective, but an occasional and judicious use can denote exasperation: it would drive a reasonable person past reason.
There’s also the idea that politeness is submission, a relic of an old order. Among those who advocate removing financial barriers to healthcare access is a sub-group which says “we’re done being polite, especially about important things. You don’t get what you want by asking nicely, but by demanding it loudly and persistently”.
This is mirrored at the opposite end of the political spectrum. Joe Biden’s predecessor made impolite into a way of reinforcing his brand of anti-PC authenticity and straight-talking. His proposal of building a wall through a desert, and the subsequent iteration of detaining children at the border, are justified as better than the nicey nicey politically correct approach to the immigration of the establishment. Part of Trump’s base is an online anti-feminist community whose emergence Angela Nagle traces to the growth of ‘pick-up artist’ networks in the late 90’s and early 00’s. Here the lingua franca is establishing oneself as an alpha male, eschewing the subservient convention of being nice and complimentary to women and showering them instead with negativity (‘negging’).
So was politeness impeached the day Trump was inaugurated? The evidence before our eyes suggests otherwise. Perhaps like me you’ve noticed the new geometry to social relationships. On a recent weekend walk in Ormeau Park, I saw groups of three friends forming invisible equilateral triangles, in the outdoors, each point separated by two meters or so. All of a sudden, our interactions are starting to resemble this series of cartoons, published months before the pandemic, summarising the importance of personal space in Norwegian culture:
We have imported these customs, these symmetries and spatial skills, very quickly considering how long we had to develop the habits of a lifetime.
We’ve internalised COVID not just into our cognition but our bodily interactions with the physical world. We’ve developed new ‘reflexes’, like walking onto the road to avoid potential close contact with oncoming neighbours on the footpath. Some people wear neckwarmers which can be lifted up and made to make-shift masks if close contact becomes unavoidable, or indeed if they need to go into a shop. One time the sight of someone covering their face on entry into a shop might have been a cue to call the police about a robbery about to be attempted, but our instincts have been reversed by circumstance.
As well as being self-preservation methods, these little acts serve as gestures to our neighbours: signals that we’re considering their wellbeing as well as ours. If politeness was the original virtue signaling, we can always learn new signals.
Of course there’s one group of people who will assuredly ignore all of this rationale. No, I don’t mean anti-maskers, I mean children (though take your pick as to who you’d rather try and reason with). My daughter is three years old so manners have been a standing agenda item for a while. Some of our messages may be slightly contradictory.
“I can hear you love, you don’t need to scream, it hurts my ears and you’ll wake the neighbours.”
“I can’t hear you love, you didn’t say the magic word”.
‘The gap game’. That’s what another Dad and I had to christen the rules of engagement when circumstances were finally benign enough to permit our kids to go on a nature walk together in summertime. Both would be naturally on the tactile end and left to their own devices would be hugging and pawing one another with gusto.
‘Remember the gap game,’ their fathers would should in unison.
Two things killed me about having to referee the gap game. First is that tactile is a good way for children to be, especially if that’s what comes naturally to them. Words are rubbish sometimes and when words elude a child, touch is often the best available medium. Furthermore, I wondered what could be the long-term effect of having their instincts curtailed at this formative age.
But the whole task of teaching a child good manners is an exercise in asking them to suppress what comes naturally to them. Of course if they want something they’re going to let you know directly and loudly. And when they get it, they’re away off to eat it or play with it. Learning to say things softly and to stop and say thank you just slows everything down. When I insist on a ‘thank you’, nagging at the back of my mind is the suspicion that I’m just teaching an automatic response, as opposed to introducing the importance of gratitude. And am I mostly concerned with how others will view her if she’s too direct? My daughter hasn’t reached an intense ‘why’ phase yet, but pre-empting that I’ve tried to retrofit an explanation for why please and thank you are good words to use. My story is that it’s a way to show the person that you’re considering them and their point of view, as well as just your own and showing that you appreciate how they’re feeling. Her response: is it solipsistic in here or is just me? Touché child.
I tend to land on an uneasy patch of ground, namely that it will probably be easier to nurture in my daughter a deeper gratitude for life and nature and love if she has at least the rudimentary habit of saying thank you for everyday things. I haven’t worked out what I’ll tell her the first time she swears at me. I do know what I’ll tell her grandparents though: she must have picked it up from the USA’s first female Vice-President.