There Are No Shortcuts to Good Manners

I don’t think I’m imagining things when I say that even here in the polite, hospitable South, bad manners are on the rise. On the whole, we just aren’t even trying to be decent, honest, and polite to one another.

In the old black-and-white Roy Rogers western Billy the Kid Returns, Rogers gallantly carries a young pioneer woman’s water for her cattle in a wagon train. In response, her father compliments Rogers with the remark, “tell your folks you had good raising.”

Good manners were thought to begin at childhood. A person lacking good manners would be regarded as an uncivilized scofflaw, untamed by proper parenting.

It seems that we’ve become a society of uncivilized scofflaws. There’s bad behavior everywhere you turn, from the big obvious things like drug and alcohol abuse to widespread divorce and abortion for convenience to little things like not using your turn signal when you turn and cutting people off in traffic.

Nowadays we are two degrees away from “good raising.” A half century ago, parents generally raised their kids, taught them good manners, and spanked them when they didn’t behave. 20 years ago, the burden had shifted to schoolteachers, and today kids learn what manners they learn from their peers and the school of hard knocks. Both are unkind and inferior teachers.

What’s a well-mannered person to do who is continually assaulted by their neighbors’ bad manners?

  • “He stole my gas can.”

  • “She won’t cut her grass regularly.”

  • “He has an old rusty eyesore in the front yard and it’s driving my property value down.”

  • “She has five dogs chained up in the yard and I’m afraid to walk past the property. If they ever get loose…”

  • “Traffic has decided to take a shortcut and speed through my neighborhood.”

  • “There is trash, like, EVERYWHERE. It’s so disgusting and embarrassing.”

Who of us hasn’t seen the heartbreaking photos of emaciated dogs abandoned during storm evacuation and left chained up, found days or weeks later by emergency workers?

I’ve experienced each of these examples firsthand or had constituents complain to me about them.

What’s a person to do? Just deal with it, and be miserable?

When you understand that the reasonably well-mannered product of 20 or 50 years ago has grown up with the habits of good manners and the expectation that others would do likewise is surrounded by terrible behavior, you can start to understand if they feel that society owes them a debt.

Somebody ought to make a law

The most common response is the appeal to government. Adults not being decent, showing common sense, being cruel, or disregarding his fellow man? “Let’s make a law,” they say.

The problem is that you can’t legislate good manners.

Each of the illustrations I’ve given have had laws proposed and enacted at either the state or local level. It hasn’t eradicated bad manners.

It can’t. Government has only one tool in its toolbox: force. It comes in different forms, from fines, to loss of property by eminent domain, to imprisonment. Our courts are clogged and our jails are overflowing because in modern America, “in Government we trust.”

Yet, we double down.

Oh Lord, come quickly!

Some Christians will observe (rightly) that an increase in bad manners and a loss of human decency is predicted in the Bible as a sign of the end times.

There are some who look at this and raise their hands to heaven and say, “Oh Lord, come quickly!” and they feel spiritual for wanting Jesus to come back and take them away and rain hell fire on the earth—on the badly-behaved losers they have for neighbors.

Not so spiritual, after all. If Christians of all people don’t love their neighbors, who can be expected to?

There is a dark side to this among some older white Christians in the rural South. Many of the neighbors they dislike so much are black. These professing Christians think that just because they equally dislike “white trash” and don’t wear the hood that therefore they aren’t actually racist. I would like to think that this attitude is dying out with that generation, because such attitudes have no place in the Church.

I can start a new world

Eventually, people of all stripes will start to fantasize about leaving. It can be an attractive thought: start a settlement somewhere else and leave behind the elements we don’t want. We can build a new world on the values we hold dear. Let’s get outta here.

This was tried for real in the Biosphere 2 experiment. Prompted by fears of the earth one day becoming uninhabitable, wealthy environmentalists decided to create a self-sustaining and diverse ecology including a lake, a rain forest, and a savannah, all nestled together under a three-acre airtight dome in the Arizona desert. Adding to its significance was the fact that if successful, it would prepare the way to establishing permanent human colonies on places like the moon or Mars. The experiment taught us much about earth science, but it also taught us equally as much about human nature.

Within only six months, the Biosphere 2 crew broke into two factions. While they continued to mostly work together and completed their two-year mission, their relationship became quite acrimonious. This same type of factionalism and depression have also been observed and studied in long-term missions on space stations and science stations in the Antarctic.

In the sci-fi drama Interstellar, Earth is dying, while one crop after another fails to disease. Professor Brand instructs Cooper, the pilot, that “We’re not meant to save the world, we’re meant to leave it.” Later, his daughter, the idealistic Amelia Brand, muses to Cooper en route to investigate potentially habitable worlds:

Brand: You know, out there, we face great odds—death—but…not evil.

Cooper: You don’t think nature can be evil?

Brand: No. Formidable, frightening, but…no, not evil. Is a lion evil because it rips a gazelle to shreds?

Cooper: Just what we take with us, then.

Sure enough, the evil they took with them rears its ugly head.

Exodus is a major plot element in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, where one by one the innovative and successful capitalists begin to disappear from the increasingly hostile world that deems itself entitled to their profits. John Galt whisks them all away to a hidden colony, a cocoon in which to await the total collapse of the inept and corrupt socialist world.

Upon joining, each new initiate into the colony was required to take the objectivist oath: “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” Each member, no matter how successful or wealthy they had been before, started out destitute and was required to earn their keep however they might. Meanwhile, the outside world burned—literally.

In our day, some leftist celebrities threatened exodus from America if Donald Trump became President, as if they were Atlas holding up the world of contemporary art. Then there are all the religious or cultic attempts throughout history to create isolated settlements away from the perceived evils of the outside world. Each and every one has its dark underbelly.

My point here is that no matter what your value system is, there are no shortcuts to a polite and well-mannered society. Attempts to abscond and rebuild are doomed to fail, because not one human is immune and carries in their own person evil which will eventually and without fail emerge.

the answer is in the mirror

Government can’t fix it, God is not coming to rescue you (at least not on your timetable), and you can’t leave it behind.

So, what then?

Learn what it means to love thy neighbor. And why? Because God made you, and this is your purpose, but you will fail unless you first love God. So love God, and then love thy neighbor.

You can’t effectively confront an ill-mannered civilization of scofflaws without first looking in the mirror. Where are you yourself guilty? Do you care about your neighbor as a human being? What about your kids, and your grandkids? What have you taught them?

In 12 Rules for Life: an Antidote to Chaos, Dr. Jordan B. Peterson advises parents, “Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.” This is illustrated in an account from his own parenting:

His son was particularly ornery: an unpleasant or ugly temperament. He noticed his son was not eating enough food. He would just go out and play after eating a couple of mouthfuls as he’d play with his food. His son would test the limitations of his environment through this play, but it was affecting his sleep because he wasn’t eating enough and the child’s sleeplessness was then consequently affecting Peterson and his wife because then they’d be woken up in the middle of the night, and that would cascade into more problems because sleep deprivation contributes to a whole group of problems.

He decided, “I’m going to go to war with you, child. You will not defeat me. You’re going to finish everything on this plate today and eat exactly what you need to eat for your sustenance and growth.” He said something very interesting:

“A patient adult can defeat a two-year-old, as hard as that is to believe.”

“They sat down, looked each other in the eyes and they knew, all right, we’re going to war right here. Time after time, Peterson would try and feed him. His son would dodge the spoon of food. He would try little techniques like poking him in a playful manner that would annoy him and get his attention while he tried to put the spoon in his mouth. Of course, the child would resist, but eventually, he would open his mouth admitting outrage and emotion at the annoyance of being poked, and so Peterson put the spoon in his mouth.

Of course, the child then tried to reject the food and push it out of his mouth, so Peterson put his finger up to his mouth and of course, some came out, but not all of it and some was swallowed. Good, we’ve had a good win, but at this point, he didn’t just repeat it over and over again, he positively reinforced his son. He gave him a pat on the head and told him he was a good boy and he meant it—if someone does something for you that you’re trying to get them to do, reward them.

He would repeat this process and after an hour later, it was all done. Yes, there was outrage. Yes, there was emotional over-spill. Yes there was stress, but the food was eaten by the child. His son collapsed on him exhausted and they napped. Then when they woke up, his son liked him a lot better than he had before he was disciplined. The lesson is this: do not let your child do anything to make you dislike them.

I’m in the law-making business, but I can’t fix your neighbors with more government force, more clogged courts, more jail, more taxes or fines, more loss of property, and less liberty. My job as a lawmaker is to repeal unjust laws and expose corruption in government, not make more of it.

So please, before you come to me with a nuisance problem, first go look in the mirror, and see what you personally can do about it. Then come tell me about it. Maybe we can do it together.

Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash