The charcoal fire cooled to a weak glow as the burgers settled into our stomachs after a lazy Fourth of July dinner in the backyard. My kids and I talked, as we always do after a meal, about whatever wistfully entered our minds as we passed the heaps of quantity time I’ve taught them to treasure.
“I wonder what Jefferson would say if we could bring him to today,” my daughter asked. I stalled as I wondered about it. My son, more into science than public policy, thought Benjamin Franklin would be more interesting. I latched onto this because “Bonhomme Richard” was more outgoing experienced traversing new cultures, so his measured response would be based on careful observation. “I think all the political correctness would seem strange to him,” my daughter added. And that’s when it came to me.
“No, I don’t think so,” I answered as fatherly as I could. “I think he would see that as nothing more than a kind politeness – the way a gentleman should behave in a different world.” And I realized that it was that simple concept – being a “gentleman” – that is missing in so much of our public discourse and gives a greater meaning to the bits of politeness and respect we have left.
Not long ago people didn’t make off-color jokes in public or openly insult people who were different. They had their prejudices, certainly, but it simply wasn’t polite to bring them up all the time. Contentious subjects could be discussed, but only with a certain level of respect that presumed the other person was not an idiot or criminally minded. There was a standard of behavior, “gentlemanly” that kept much of it civil.
I won’t use the word “lady” because it implies second-class status and an extra degree of knowing your (inferior) place in a conversation. I’m too much of a gentleman to go there – or, at least, I don’t have much to say on that complex topic.
But I will tell you that I learned this from my grandmother, Helen. She was a somewhat proper woman, as you would expect from someone born in 1905. But that didn’t mean she wasn’t outgoing, always acting with kindness and politeness even in a simple trip to the grocery store. Race and age and the quality of someone’s clothes didn’t matter at all. She made friends everywhere she went just by being decent. She showed me, rather than lecture me, just how much better life is with just a bit of politeness. I learned to be a gentleman by example.
It works, too. I always say “please” and “thank you”, even on twitter. And I make friends that way, despite the air of formality that, I admit, can be a shade stuffy at times. But absent even the smallest clue as to who the person at the other end of their screen might be there is always room for basic respect and decency. If we teach the next generation only one thing it is that they need to remember there is a real human beyond each connection.
But back to the thought experiment of a time-traveling Benjamin Franklin. He would be amazed at how his own vision of equality was realized among so many races – and even between men and women. I think he would smile with approval, never quite sure what to say. Accepting homosexuality might be a bit difficult for him, but I have little doubt that he would see it as a natural progression after a while. And he would definitely understand that a new world, like the one created from the visions of men like him, would require a new standard for being a “gentleman”. The one thing that I think he would be dismayed by in today’s world would be that so often it seems that we achieved true equality not by raising everyone’s bearing and dignity but instead by being rather coarse and at times quite rude.
This is my supposition, of course. What I am sure of is that a free people aren’t governed by laws that limit what they can say but by a decency that cultivates respect. Without the latter, the tyranny of the former creeps in. As progress is made and people become more truly equal – and free – we have to update the idea of being a “gentleman” for each new generation. Junking the whole concept doesn’t cut it. Little things make all the difference.
There is always a place for a little respect and kindness. My grandmother knew it very well and lived it constantly, updated a bit as time progressed around her. More to the point, I know she was a much happier person for it, too.
What do you think? Should we have more standards for decent behavior? Or is it enough to practice them yourself every day and lead by example, doing your best? What about being a “lady” in today’s world?