27 July 2014

C. S. Lewis On Kindness and Civility at the Table (And Online)

"We hear a great deal about the rudeness of the rising generation. I am an oldster myself and might be expected to take the oldsters' side, but in fact I have been far more impressed by the bad manners of parents to children than by those of children to parents.

Who has not been the embarrassed guest at family meals where the father or mother treated their grown-up offspring with an incivility which, offered to any other young people, would simply have terminated the acquaintance? Dogmatic assertions on matters which the children understand and their elders don't, ruthless interruptions, flat contradictions, ridicule of things the young take seriously - sometimes of their religion - insulting references to their friends, all provide an easy answer to the question "Why are they always out? Why do they like every house better than their home?"

Who does not prefer civility to barbarism?

If you asked any of these insufferable people - they are not all parents of course - why they behaved that way at home, they would reply, "Oh, hang it all, one comes home to relax. A chap can't be always on his best behaviour. If a man can't be himself in his own house, where can he? Of course we don't want Company Manners at home. We're a happy family. We can say anything to one another here. No one minds. We all understand."

Once again it is so nearly true yet so fatally wrong.

Affection is an affair of old clothes, and ease, of the unguarded moment, of liberties which would be ill-bred if we took them with strangers. But old clothes are one thing; to wear the same shirt till it stank would be another. There are proper clothes for a garden party; but the clothes for home must be proper too, in their own different way. Similarly there is a distinction between public and domestic courtesy. The root principle of both is the same: "that no one give any kind of preference to himself."

C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves

I suspect Mr. Lewis would be inclined to make similar observations about online manners as compared to public manners, where electronic anonymity tempts the worst part of a person to be belittling, dismissive, condescending, and in short, a bully.

Sometimes people come to confuse rudeness with strength and position, and choose to exercise it when they feel that they have some power, even if it is just the power to say what you will with relative impunity given the distance of electronics. The culture of the internet is nascent; and intelligence without education and cultural broadening can quickly degenerate into barbarism, even amongst people, not only commenters but bloggers, who might be otherwise appalled by how they act online.

Understanding, compassion, and kindness are the signs of real power and strength. Rudeness, incivility, and bad manners are the signs of ill-breeding and ignorance, of the disordered mind of the narcissist, who proceeds through life unaware and uncaring of those around them.

I am certainly no stuffed shirt. Manners does not mean that famous English reserve which is mannerism. Rather, manners are no ritual. Ritual manners, like accents, are too often an artificial construct with the purpose of promoting a type of class system.

Civility is a certain ease of behavior, a tolerant awareness and acceptance of the commonalities of the human condition, supported by kindness.

Barbarism can become fashionable, almost contagious. One may even have learned such dismissive and condescending behaviour from a parent, who learned it from one of theirs, or in some deep disappointment in their lives.

Don't tell yourself that this is just the way it is. Rather, tell yourself that this is just wrong, and let such incivility stop with me.