June 5, 2005


Civility in a Democracy: A Conversation with Miss Manners (Bruce Cole, Humanities)

NEH Chairman Bruce Cole talks with Judith Martin about how standards of behavior were adapted for an American democracy. Known to readers of her syndicated column as Miss Manners, Judith Martin is the author of twelve books, among them Star-Spangled Manners.

Bruce Cole: Have people always been interested in trying to improve their manners?

Judith Martin: No. Mid-twentieth century America had one of the cyclical attempts to overthrow etiquette. "It's artificial, it's snobbish," it's this, that, and the other. We go through that every once in a while. The French did that after the French Revolution.

There are times when etiquette can get so elaborate that it drives people crazy and interferes with their lives. Then they say, "Why don't we just throw the whole thing aside and act naturally? They act naturally, whatever that is--nobody knows what natural human behavior is--and they express themselves very freely. After the insults start flying, and then people can't stand it and they say, "Why don't we have some manners around here?" We're in that period now. But let us not forget there are periods when people disdain etiquette.

Cole: What I wanted to get at were your historic predecessors, people who wrote books--Castiglione with his Book of the Courtier and Lord Chesterfield's letters to his son. He was reviled, right? Samuel Johnson said Chesterfield had the manners of a dancing master and the morals of a whore. Have you heard that?

Martin: It's better than the other way around, right? Emerson said he'd rather dine with a scoundrel than someone who had no table manners.

Throughout history there has been the question: How should man live? How should we behave? How should we treat one another? The minute you have a community, you have to have some form of etiquette, of hierarchy, of recognition, just to keep people from killing one another.

Etiquette is older than law and even now divides the realm of regulating behavior with the legal system. There are a lot of problems with that these days because people keep trying to turn over matters of etiquette to the legal system, which doesn't handle them very well.

Miss Manners is a great underrated conservative.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 5, 2005 1:50 PM

I have to completely agree with Miss Manners that trying to turn over etiquette to the legal system is a fool's errand. It is another way of saying what I was trying to write to Mr. Burnett.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at June 6, 2005 11:52 AM