Politeness At Least – September 12, 2010

Let me say up front that I’m not a follower of any religion, although I do think well of the writings and opinions of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Here is a reasonable man with huge amounts of common sense and personal grace. He is struggling with his own awkward political situation, concerning the governance of Tibet, that would have other and lesser people urging riots and throwing bombs. And yet, without capitulating, he maintains his equilibrium and sees the good in people. Call it sensitivity to the situation of other beings. His Holiness calls it compassion. My mother would call it old-fashioned politeness.

The situation that has arisen over Ground Zero in New York City would appear to be a case of lesser men. On the one hand, a popular and well-regarded spokesman for Islam wants to build a religious and educational center in close proximity to the site at which twenty Islamic fanatics killed 3,000 Americans. On the other, a Florida pastor who opposes this building wants to publicly burn the imam’s sacred book.

Apart from the constitutionally guaranteed rights of free expression permitted to both men, didn’t their mothers teach them the rules of basic courtesy? Haven’t they learned how to get along with other children without inviting a black eye?

In the first case, when a member of your team has done something the other team considers unforgivable, whether you did or did not approve of the act, the best course is to say you’re sorry and then be quiet for a while. Explaining the act, trying to justify it, or just setting up a marker pointing to it is simply bad manners.

In the second case, denigrating someone else’s deeply held beliefs by burning his books is also bad manners.

Good manners is not weakness, not capitulation. Good manners is not a moral fig leaf covering a lack of courage in your convictions. Good manners may require tremendous courage, especially when you have to smile at the tiger who is chewing on your leg. Good manners certainly requires the moral discipline to step back from the current situation, consider it calmly, and act in alignment with your principles rather than your emotions.

Good manners is the one thing that no one—no gang or society or government, nor poverty of purse or lack of options and opportunities—can take from you. Good manners is the last possession of a gentleman. But while good manners cannot be taken from you, you can certainly give them up.

We seem to be living in a time without mother’s teaching. More and more, the people around us, and as depicted in the popular culture of current books and movies, celebrate their “attitude,” their “rights,” their raw sense of self. They sometimes seem to sustain themselves on a vibe of personal pique and road rage. Emotionally, they exhibit the hair-trigger tantrums of untrained five-year-olds.

And that, in an adult, when it’s not absolutely terrifying, is just … sad.