What are manners?

Manners are the things that we agree to do, but we are not forced to do. This is the heart of the mask argument: if people don’t do it because it’s “just the right thing,” it’s not really possible to make them do it from on-high. When “no spitting” signs appear, they won’t stop all spitting, because anyone rude enough to spit is probably also too rude to mind the sign.

Want to see over-policing that equally disadvantages the functional communities, as it has the dysfunctional ones? Try to mandate new manners most people don’t agree with.

Which is why I have no position on mandating masks, aside from the practical observation that there is no issue, even on something as basic as the protection accorded by masks, that our goblins in government cannot make a mess of: at one point you could step across the border of a state where masks were forbidden (Arizona) to one where they are mandatory. Americans now live in a “what is not forbidden is mandatory” world, without the courts that churn the contradictions taking notice that there is another evolutionary set of facts that “knows” entirely different facts from what the law settled on. I imagine Bill Nye the “Science Guy” writing his ‘letter from a Birmingham jail’ on droplet experiments, with and without mask mitigation.

Manners have to be evolutionary, but if they are the things we all agree on without being made to, they also must be paradoxically stable. There are cultures in crisis because their manners are changing faster than they can handle. The Islamic world is in a series of civil wars over which modern manners should be adopted and which are unholy.

America might be headed to conflict over the question of whether manners can evolve too fast, even for America, the the most rapidly evolutionary culture the world has ever seen (and, which culture? There are at least a dozen). Large segments of our society are rejecting each other’s assertions on what are basic manners. The Trump phenomenon was “bigly” about this struggle. That’s because manners are no longer “naturally” evolutionary (women not getting hat-tips, because nobody wears hats). Manner changes are also being driven by, and for, politics.

A good way of determining what manners should be “real,” (i.e. accepted and enduring), and which are political (which can be ethically ignored), is that if you are harming someone, or putting them at risk, you are being rude.

Which brings us to “mask refusers.” Mask refusers are unconscionably rude because they flip risk assessment: your risk-taking is forcing your assessment of risk onto a risk-averse person (actually, a correctly risk-adapted one). Refusers will never see, much less pay for, the consequence of giving someone COVID a fortnight later. It’s worse than forcing someone who is food-picky to eat blowfish.

The consequences of manner breaches matters: exposing your genitals to someone is not in the same league of rudeness as exposing them to a life-changing disease.

In another era, if you put my octogenarian ma and dad at risk of a life-changing disease, you would meet the consequences of my fist. Frankly, I’m astonished mask-refusers are not taken physically to account by the families of the older, and the immuno-suppressed (lots of those out there), more often.

That mask-refusers are not taken to task by family-protectors is the benefit of living in a more advanced civilization. Being able to get away with savagery because you live in an advanced culture is an irony that works their way, but they need to call it what it is, and realize they are in the do-what-you-want-because-you-can-get-away-with-it ethic set of their Leftist tribal enemies. Just because everyone else has little power to make you stop offending does not mean it’s OK to be offensive.

An anecdote, for what should be the new manners of the COVID era: a policeman told me the story of how an unmasked homeless man approached someone on the street, panhandling. That someone warned him back, but the panhandler persisted and got properly set-upon. “Who assaulted who” asked the cop. It’s a very good question (the panhandler insisted on assault charges, but the cops slow-walked their hunt).

Which brings us to another good rule for manners to be useful: they must be simple. If they require Kabuki rituals to apply, the new manner is too complex. By Kabuki, I refer to America’s ritualistic, rarified, approachable only by a Priestly class, long-winded, unnecessarily gilded system. We cannot use a rite that takes two years to sort out someone spreading disease.

All of our disputes: manners, criminality, race and sexual relations, would be much fairer if we had an economical way of addressing them (because they would be less risky). A court fight can cost even the winner the value of a house (or the flip side: Kabuki court expenses are weaponized by the powerful against the weak).

Without useful courts, without useful policing (in the “defund the police” era), without useful manners, I fear our conflicts will increasingly have to be settled violently (while we also try to solve over-policing?).

Which is why I agree with the cop: a mask-refuser getting his wagon fixed is not a crime I’d put a high priority on solving. All learning is costly in time, money or skin. If mask-refusers won’t learn, and it’s their skin, so be it.

Eugene Darden Nicholas

About Eugene Darden Nicholas

Eugene Darden (Ed) Nicholas is from Flushing Queens, where he grew up sheltered from the hard world, learning the true things after graduating college and becoming a paramedic in Harlem. School continues to inform and entertain in all its true, Shakespearean glory. It's a lot of fun, really. In that career, dozens of people walk the earth now who would not be otherwise. (The number depends on how literally or figuratively you choose to add). He added a beloved wife to his little family, which is healthy. He is also well blessed in friends and colleagues.


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