Sunday, November 15, 2009


I was discourteous to a few people the other day, and need to find them and apologize. In the meantime I've been thinking about the role of courtesy in society and government.

The social stigma attached to discourtesy can be hugely powerful. The rude person is breaking laws, unwritten though they may be, and other people react accordingly. Why?

I submit that some rule of courtesy is an indispensable “meta-law” for a culture. Exactly what the form of it is will vary somewhat according to what the society values most, though the bones of it will roughly be the golden rule.

Imagine that you are driving to the store. There are quite a few laws that govern how you are to drive. Your speed must not exceed the posted limit. You are to stay in the right-hand lane unless passing another car. You must signal turns. You must park in one of the designated slots.

These rules do not absolutely constrain my driving at every moment in the trip. At an intersection I want to drive straight through and another car wants to turn right into my lane. I can speed up to let him turn behind me, or slow down a bit and let him turn ahead of me, or maintain my speed and let him wait. There's no law against my slowing down once I reach the other side and blocking him just for spite.

You may not see that kind of thing on city streets, but I've seen it on the highway.

We've handed the police a huge blank check for enforcement: they can stop you for “reckless driving.” As far as I can tell it isn't clearly defined: it is whatever the police officer says he thinks risks accidents. Of course the ticket he writes may be thrown out in court as ridiculous, but in the meantime he can stop you for any whim he pleases.

We gave them this privilege because too many people do not apply a rule of courtesy to driving. They are rude, careless of other's interests, and apt to think of themselves as the only important people on the road. (And of course there are the foolishly careless who forget the road in their interest in disciplining the kids in back or adjusting the radio)

Courtesy is not love. We extend courtesy to people we've never met before; or who we may never meet. Cleaning up your campsite in a park is courtesy to the people who come after you; perhaps even courtesy to the animals. I can't love those I don't know; and if I did love them I'd probably do much more than merely police the campsite.

However, courtesy is like love. I set aside my convenience for the benefit of someone else. True, these are almost always for small matters, but small things add up. One splash of water against the side of a ship doesn't do much, but a steady stream of them moves it. A steady stream of courtesies tends to make a person feel welcome and part of the group—assuming the courtesies are the same for all and not noblesse oblige.

That sense of being part of the group is essential if you expect someone to be willing to sacrifice for the group. If you want someone to be willing to risk his life for his nation, or even pay taxes without cheating, you must either motivate him by fear or love. You can't buy courage; and paying someone to pay his taxes is silly. You can, of course, hire mercenaries, but thousands of years of history are available to warn us about how unreliable they can be. There is no good substitute for an army of a country's own citizens.

Fantasies of a world without war in which armies are not needed can be amusing but barring a revolution in human nature it isn't going to happen. God intervening can do that sort of thing; but installing a different set of political bosses will not.

Of course different cultures value different courtesies. Middle Eastern countries are famous for hospitality (I do not speak from experience here) and for extended and polite haggling. The haggling can be a way of treating each other as humans and not merely mobile vending machines (decide if the price is ok, insert money and take product). Hospitality is a fairly obvious way of welcoming someone.

In the West we aren't quite so good at hospitality and aren't really very friendly hagglers, but we have other courtesies. We seem to be better at letting people be—getting out of the way when someone is in a hurry, providing privacy, and so on. The public commons are common, and folks get very upset when others (generally youth) block the sidewalks or hang out in the streets and compel others to stop or go around. The loss of that courtesy is an early sign of the disintegration of a neighborhood—it instantly creates an “us and them” mentality.

The offenders against courtesy may be careless, selfish, ignorant, or malicious. The malicious are the ones who try to “game the system” to take advantage of other's courtesy, or the ones who hate the rest of society and look for ways to injure and offend. We've all run across a few of these, and their kin who use illegal means as well.

We're all selfish from time to time (see the first paragraph), or careless; and ordinarily conscience or social pressure pushes us back into line (assuming that we're able to perceive social cues). And children need to be socialized to understand the rules. Most of us will wind up following the rules most of the time.

What of the ignorant—the outsiders who never learned to value the same courtesies we did? We can do several things: require that they learn our rules on pain of ostracism, attempt a “dialog to learn from each other,” or pretend that nothing is wrong.

A dialog of this order isn't done one on one but as a society, and I know of no way to make it happen if the bulk of the culture doesn't want it to happen. In any event both groups—the “natives” and the “immigrants” learn the other's courtesies; not just one side. And let me repeat—there will be no such adjustment if one side declines.

That leads to the first situation—ostracism and isolation of the newcomers. Sometimes this is exactly what they want—and sometimes it is proper. Just because some action is valued and considered a courtesy doesn't automatically make it good. In general, though, that kind of ghettoization of a group is bad news. Will they learn to adapt? Some groups do, others never seem to—and you wind up with divisions and loss of “we're all in this together.”

The last choice, pretending nothing is wrong, pits the experience of the citizens against desires for tranquility. If the newcomers eventually adapt (and the majority culture perhaps takes up some good things from them) then this will have been the right choice. But when newcomers don't want to adapt you now have permanent friction and a loss of the “we're all in this together” that makes a nation work. If you have a divided nation, you'd better recognize it—pretending will just leave you up the creek when you try to rely on imaginary unity.

I've been on both sides of this.

Take language. It is an elementary courtesy to try to learn the language of the country you are living in. I do. I visit Switzerland regularly, and try to get my French into some semblance of usability. But the work language there is English, and so when dining with colleagues we provide English voices in a sea of French. I feel somewhat uncomfortable with this, as it gives the impression that I do not wish to accommodate to the local language (which I speak very vilely, so perhaps is is actually more courteous for me not to). It is not my intention to create an English ghetto, but it feels like I'm doing it. Of course I'm only a short-term guest and make no demands on Swiss society to accommodate me.

In my own country I have long taken it for granted that most immigrants would want to learn English, but am coming to the conclusion that some fraction would rather not—and I find that discourteous. I think it is meant to be so, to help isolate certain ethnic groups and keep them united—in particular united behind political leaders for whom we are not “all in this together.”

Some oppose immigration because “they're not like us.” I used to think that was silly—immigration brings in adventurous people and new ideas. And it certainly does. It also brings risks, and I think it better to recognize them and think about how to mitigate them than to pretend there's never any problem. Sometimes there is.

In one sense it is foolish to think about protecting a culture. Cultures are always in flux, “And God fulfils Himself in many ways, Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.” Yet in another it isn't foolish. Deliberately disrupting (as recent memos suggest the British Labour Party tried to do) or ignoring the disruption of a culture is a recipe for disintegration of the bonds that hold the nation together. I'm assuming that the change is neutral or just as good—evils need to be resisted whether new or entrenched.

We are prompt to teach our children the new courtesy of rejecting ethnic slurs (a good addition). Can we remind them to salute their elders, open the door for others, and others of the old traditions as well? Can we remind ourselves that a man is not his political party? Learn to call rudeness rudeness and not “authenticity?”

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