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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?

19 thoughts on “Gentleman

  1. So, Erik, What do you think is the cause of diminished civility? After all, this is supposed to be the land of “Minnesota Nice”…..

    I’d suspect part of it is the increasing polarization, diminished span of consensus values…. Presuming that officials, say, aren’t “…an idiot or criminally minded.” surely isn’t getting an easier when said officials endorse torture, assassination, or shutdown of the social safety net. Assumptions of decency and good faith are getting less and less realistic, or at least seeming more artificial.

    It may well be that that diminished civility is a symptom of something deeper and more dangerous.

  2. Alan: Elected officials are one thing – they have always gotten nasty from the press. I mean amongst ourselves, those of us who haven’t been elected to office. I don’t mean this to be a political statement at all because many of the examples have nothing to do with politics. But it does influence our politics, of course.

  3. Interesting…I just came here from reading an article on the President’s news conference and read the comments…whew…not at all civilized.

    You are discussing in-person discourse, and I clearly recall political discussions being rare and limited to the occasional “I’ll be supporting Eisenhauer (or Stevenson)” and moving quickly to another topic.

    Today, in similar situations, politics are not mentioned at all. If one is foolish to bring the topic up, invariably tempers flare to conflagration.

    Today’s print media, as vile as it can be, is not nearly so entertaining a 19th Century newspapers. I’ve lost many an hour of family research at the Minnesota History Center in “Oh LOOK a butterfly” mode distracted by editorials in old papers.

  4. I agree with you to a point. I think you are incorrect when it comes to how people of a different race were treated. For this topic I think it depends on what part of the country you grew up in and I am specifically referring to African Americans and Mexicans.

  5. I think I blame the media. Shows like Jerry Springer were the first reality shows and they encouraged people to behave like total jacka&&es. I think it also went back to the hippies long ago when people started getting in each others faces about the Vietnam War. But I do totally agree that people are very rude in ways they never were before. I don’t know what to do about it.

  6. Jack: You are right – the ‘net is not “in person”, or at least the same rules don’t apply. I have my theory that I posted long ago, which I linked to. But why don’t we? And yes, newspapers have always been nasty … two comments down. 🙂

    Will: I do agree – ethnic groups, women, and LBGT are all better off because of what we call “political correctness”. But isn’t that really just an extension of the same “gentlemanly” behavior that used to be afforded every male in the majority and, in some cases, to everyone by those who were “real” gentlemen? I just think that there’s a way to look at decent, civil behavior that is both traditional AND capable of growing / changing. And I do think we need it pretty badly right now if we’re going to be able to talk about the political, social, and economic problems we have.

    Dale: Going back to what Jack said, you may have a point. I also agree that the 60s/70s may have been a turning point as politics heated up and social disorder was common. But I don’t want to blame, I want to move on. We do pretty well here as internet sites go and I think most of you are good gentlemen (I do want to hear from the “ladies” because that is a much more complex subject!). So how did we get things that way here/? Can we help change the world and talk about things with a lot more people.

    This is not a well thunk out posting, BTW. I am very curious what other people think.

  7. Erik:
    I don’t experience much incivility in my personal life. An occasional oaf shouting out a truck window is about it. I think aging has a lot to do with it–hormone levels drop, one becomes less inclined to conflict, verbal or otherwise, one gets more experienced at sensing where others are going, what fights seem worth having. Is your experience different?

    I’m not sure about the true tie between pleasant language and genuine respect for the other. Overdone, false courtesy (“you have a GREAT day”) annoys after a while.

    On a list, this weekend, someone–one of the more admirable participants, IMO–used “retarded” rather than “developmentally delayed” to refer to a person. Another was very offended by what amounted to a failure to use the current, politically correct lingo. Seemed silly to me, but I don’t like, on principle, politically correct euphemisms. But say “nigger” around me and there will be a reaction.

    Read an interesting piece–several decades old, I think–saying that South African blacks often preferred Afrikaner to “English” employers. (“Employer” is an inadequate term when the employee is a serf.) The English were more polite. The Afrikaners were more verbally abusive but more likely to provide a plate of food or a glass or water…. True? I don’t know.

  8. If you want to talk about being a lady I don’t think I can say my peace in a small space at all. Theres a part of me that says a woman should be able to wear whatever she wants and not have to worry about being assaulted and that It think is always true. But at the same time if you dress like a slut (you don’t mind if I say that?) then you can’t expect people to take you seriously. That is a double standard I know but I don’t know what the line is.

    You were talking more about how people talk to each other but how they dress has a lot to do with it. Someone who is dressed well always gets respect from what I can see and I don’t think race, gender, age, and all that other stuff matters at all. So maybe that is what really happened. But then again I can’t say why people are so way over the top mean to each other online at times. I know you are right when you say that people forget there is another person at the other end but they take it to such an extreme that you would think they have to think about the other person at least a little bit.

    So I don’t really have any answers but I do think it is a good topic. I like the way you said “respect” because that is what it is all about. Just a little respect goes a long way even if you have to fake it. People should respect each other at least in public because you never know who the other person is or how they got where they are.

  9. Alan: With you on age, it does help a lot. As for being “decent” vs. being actually “kind”, you have me there. I grew up in something like the old South (parts of Florida were hard to quantify) and many people were genuinely kind and open. Minnesotans are much more likely to be polite, but I think on balance a bit less likely to give you the shirt off their back. Choosing one over the other is a matter of taste as much as anything.

    Anna: Thank you! That’s kind of what I mean, although I wasn’t going to go into how people dress. But that does bug me at times as well. I think your point that people who dress well are always given respect, regardless of anything, is probably quite right. So what does that mean? If we want to encourage civil discussion do we insist on a dress code? And could we do that without getting pretty rude in a different way? I really don’t want to go there – but you do have an excellent point. And, again, none of that should matter online where we have no idea about the other person, so I think we do have to start insisting that people behave a bit more civilly.

    Thing is, if I ask people (as politely as possible) to be more civil on twitter I can hear the response now – “Who are you, Miss Manners?” And that would be the nicest comment, too.

  10. I think it was you who did a blog a while ago on how rough language has become common. I know your a fan of the Daily Show but I can’t watch that without being offended the way they go over the top. So I agree that the media is a lot of the problem. I also think its about respect and using rude words brings that down pretty fast IMHO.

  11. ‘Don’t you be dissin’ me.’ We certainly better not dis anyone….you never know when retaliation could come in the form of physical violence. But those who spout those words are the very ones who find it perfectly within reason to treat anyone not in their immediate inner circle with disdain, disrespect, foul language, contempt.

    Common courtesy is not something which is taught ANYwhere. You used the phrase ‘decent, civil behavior’. I would venture to guess that if you asked any youth on the street to define that term, you would get that blank stare most of the time…you know, that look of incomprehension.

    I was one of thos 70’s hippies. I wasn’t really at all interested in the politics of the day. So I can’t speak to any of the political drama you say could have been the start of this ‘brave new world’. But one thing I DO know about those days. You still spoke with respect. To your elders, to your instructors, to those with whom you dealt on a business level, to strangers. Never mind the protests and the marches and the news media stuff. I’m talking about the daily intercourse you conducted with all those around you. It was still a civil society for all the civil unrest.

  12. Oh…I just wanted to add that I came over here from TB to check out your writing guides. Read a post you had made there. Thanks!

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