Sunday, 26 November 2017

A Matter of Manners

In today's Sunday Times, Niall Ferguson refers to the current pushback against sexual harassment as a 'revolution in manners' (he has well-founded reservations about its potential to 'overshoot', as revolutions do).  Ferguson is surely right to identify the whole business as a matter of manners – manners in need of reform – and he's the third person I've noticed so far making this identification (the others were an unlikely pair – Jacob Rees Mogg and Petronella Wyatt).
 These days the word 'manners' tends to be narrowly defined in terms of such things as table manners and the fatuous rules of etiquette, but it represents something far bigger and more important than any of that. Manners are the basic lubricant of society, the conventions of behaviour that enable us to live together with minimal friction. The aim of manners, properly understood, is to avoid causing discomfort to other people – discomfort ranging all the way from awkwardness and embarrassment to real pain and distress. It is indeed a matter of convention, and therefore liable to evolve over time, but that doesn't mean it is any less real, important or 'authentic'.
 Instead of taking a forensic view of the whole sexual harassment brouhaha as a matter of infringed rights and criminal (or proto-criminal) offences, it might be more illuminating to consider it as being, at least in part, the product of an evolution of manners, of the ways men and women interact with each other. There is clearly criminality in cases where underaged children are involved (though this doesn't seem to apply to the rock stars who thrived in the Seventies) and in the activities of the more thuggish sexual predators (one of whom once occupied the White House). But much of the rest is down to a movement in the barriers of offence. It is no doubt regrettable, but it is a fact that, back in the Seventies, women and girls took a degree of what we would now call sexual harassment as an everyday nuisance, one that most of them were perfectly capable of dealing with. Now we tend to find such behaviour unacceptable – quite right too – but then it was, just, within the boundaries of the acceptable. It was, however, outside the bounds of mannerly behaviour. Such behaviour was, among other things, bad manners – inconsiderate, crude and likely to cause distress.
 The English were once famed for their manners – not elaborate displays of fake courtesy but a basic decent concern not to discomfit or pain the other person, to rub along (rubbing along being one of the great English talents, along with muddling through). These manners were closely related to English self-effacement and respect for fair play. Of course they were by no means universal, but they were enough in evidence for the stereotype to gain traction and persist. It is in decline now, in an age of coarsening manners and strident self-assertion, but it does survive (especially away from the urban scrum). We should cherish and encourage it; manners, in this broad humane sense, really matter. They make us what we are. As William of Wykeham put it centuries ago, 'Manners makyth man'.

11 comments:

  1. Sorry, Nigeness, but that behaviour was not, in the seventies, just within the boundaries of the acceptable, and we were not perfectly capable of dealing with it. We had to put up with it, and men got away with it, that's all.

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    1. If I could upvote comments on Blogspot, I'd upvote yours.

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  4. Hear hear Nige. The assumption that a woman is as much a person deserving of respect as one expects oneself seems to do the trick. It might be hazarded that this is probably because she belongs to the same species as oneself. The further question, much mooted, of 'objectification' is also solved on this basis - assuming that a woman is a person as well as a body.

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  5. Indeed Guy - the old Golden Rule never fails.
    vcc3 - I think you're actually restating what I said (or meant). The fact that women had to put up with it meant that it was within the bounds of the (by default) acceptable at the time. I didn't mean 'acceptable' to carry any positive connotation, and for myself I've always deplored sexual harassment at a pretty uniform level over the decades. Never committed it, have been a victim of it.

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    1. I'm glad that's what you meant, anyway!

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  6. Reading Ferguson - and your apposite piece Nige - forced me to think back across the decades to a time when, I suppose, my own 'deportment' was formed, in the so-called 'Swinging Sixties' which, I need hardly add, were not swinging particularly vigorously in my drab Midlands city.
    Getting off your arse when a woman enters the room, walking on the outside of the pavement (with ne'er a hackney cab in sight), opening doors, eating with your mouth closed, looking people in the eye...the list is seemingly endless. But I don't remember anything being drummed into us, mainly because everybody (almost) in one's circle was behaving in the same way, without giving it much thought.
    Perhaps it was the collective of parents, school teachers, sunday-school teachers, local policemen on the beat...all promoting the same message, that wove all these threads into a fabric that appeared, even to spotty teenagers, to be as normal as squeezing a pimple, or eating in a 'dining room'.

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  7. Absolutely, Mm - that's how manners work, or rather worked...

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  8. It's a matter of bodily autonomy. Making sexual harassment/assault a question of "manners" is trivializing, and worse still, ignores the abuse that takes place outside of public view (which is most of it, and often the most severe).

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  9. The topic is so vexed, but I think women do have to be careful not to set ourselves up as helpless, when we are not. We are far from being entirely weak and passive - mere victims having things done to us - and it has taken quite a lot of effort and time to reach a point where we are recognised as more or less equal in most ways, not feeble and fragile and in need of looking after, like dolls. Helen Garner is good on this in her book The First Stone.

    Of course, there are things that ought not to be done, and any time someone who is in power makes advances to someone who depends on that person for their livelihood or advancement, unless the person in power knows pretty certainly that their advances are welcome, things become very awkward for the person not in power, whether male or female. Leaving such unbalanced situations aside, however, the rising outrage about how women have been/are treated more generally by men is dangerous. As an example, the Australian actor Geoffrey Rush has just resigned from a position in the arts because an anonymous person has complained to the Sydney Theatre Company that two or three years ago Rush did something to this person that the person considered "inappropriate", although the person does not want Rush or anyone else to know their identity nor the nature of what it was Rush was supposed to have done. How can this be right? Imagine what the world might be like if this began to happen often. Anonymous denouncements, blimey.

    This is not to diminish true violence against women, particularly when it is partly increased by an inadequate understanding by courts of an individual's potential to indulge in it:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_of_Jill_Meagher

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