When I was a child, my mother (traditional Southern woman that she was) enrolled me in an etiquette class for children called "White Gloves and Party Manners." Bratty little Yankee know-it-all that I was (this being 1970 or so), I thought it was the most absurd waste of time I'd ever been forced to endure.
Etiquette got a bad rap then, and to a certain extent it still does. It is seen in many quarters as patrician, elitist, a vestige of a society based upon class distinctions and a mechanism for institutionalized snobbery.
As I have grown older, I have come to appreciate just how wrongheaded that perception is. We have lost much by chucking etiquette out the window, and what has taken its place is not an improvement.
It's the absurd notion that the past has nothing to teach us that has gotten us where we are today. It's popular to deride the millennial generation as coddled "special snowflakes." But it's the baby boomers who absolutely cannot admit that they were wrong.
And oh, were they wrong. Theirs was the generation that gave us "Don't trust anyone over 30," and their obsession with youth has produced 50 years of deliberate disregard of the wisdom that comes with age. Etiquette was one of the first casualties.
Nowhere is this clearer than with the "sexual revolution," which has been an unmitigated disaster. Rampant divorce? Check. Fatherless children and impoverished families? Check. Spread of sexually transmitted diseases among young people? Check. Hyper-sexualization of children? Check. "Rape culture" on college campuses? Check. (Seriously — you cannot have a culture that treats sex like a spectator sport and then feign shock when young people treat it like a spectator sport.)
Even some of the most contentious issues of our day could have a significant amount of friction lessened with a little bit of etiquette and propriety: a young woman has too much to drink on a date? A young man raised to be a gentleman would not dream of taking advantage of her. A man is walking down the street wearing women's clothing? Propriety would suggest a smile and a "Good morning" and not remarking any further upon it. Your gay nephew and his significant other announce their marriage, civil union or commitment ceremony? Good manners dictate a thoughtful gift and a handwritten card if you cannot — or prefer not to — attend.
A number of societal trends have rushed into the vacuum left by etiquette's unceremonious expulsion, and none of them are good. The first of these is the adolescent insistence upon constant affirmation and public expressions of approval. This attitude has created nothing short of an ongoing national temper tantrum. For heaven's sake, grow up. Everyone isn't going to "approve" of you, and it is puerile to insist upon it.
And when approval becomes a civil right, how better to insist upon it than by using the law? In place of politesse (as the French so daintily put it), we have prosecution. Instead of a blotter, we now have a bludgeon. Thus, we move from "approve of me" to "approve of me or I will sue you." Do you really think that you will bring people around to your view of homosexuality, contraception or abortion by using the law to force people to participate? It's a prudish throwback to teach our sons to be chivalrous or our daughters to exercise good judgment — but it's somehow "progress" for them to sleep around in a drunken stupor and then have their lives ruined by actual sexual assault, or false accusations of sexual assault, or academic "disciplinary" proceedings that utterly lack due process, or criminal prosecutions.
The third trend contributing to our collective misery is the apparently irresistible impulse to tell everyone what one thinks of them. This has only been exacerbated by social media and the anonymity of the Internet. We have become a nation of insufferable busybodies. Who made it your business?
As counterintuitive as it may sound, polite behavior based upon widely acknowledged social mores is vitally important to the smooth operation of a liberal society. In its absence, we do not have more freedom, but exhibitionism and offense and conflict and oppression.
I'm not suggesting that we obsess over "Downton Abbey"-esque intricacies of etiquette ("Which fork with fish?"). But we could improve things immeasurably by following just a few simple rules:
1. Don't be vulgar in public.
2. Keep your private life private.
3. Keep your opinions to yourself.
And while we're on the subject, "privacy" is not synonymous with "shame." There are plenty of human activities — most of which involve some kind of bodily function — that we do in private, not because they are shameful, but because they are nobody's business. Those who equate rudeness and exhibitionism with societal advancement have done little except make our culture insufferably crude
I've made these observations before, and there are inevitably those who go into fits of apoplexy: "You'd take us back to the 1950s, when women and minorities were second-class citizens."
What a load of rubbish. Time marches on. There are any number of ways in which society is far better than it was, we all know it, and no one (well, except perhaps ISIS) is going backward. But not everything contemporary is "better," nor does progress preclude us from appreciating things in the past that actually have something to offer. Chaucer is still wickedly funny; Shakespeare's plays and poetry are still genius; John Milton is still poignant and inspirational, and we still teach — and play — the works of Mozart and Beethoven. That's not saying we want to live in the 14th, 16th or 18th centuries.
If we can appreciate Botticelli and Bach without a desire to live in their eras, so, too, can we look back and decide that the decorum associated with an earlier age still has a place today, notwithstanding — or perhaps because of — our modernity.
And we should.