Jonny Thomson: Good manners aren’t a nice-to-have, but are central to democratic life

4 Jun

Jonny Thomson teaches philosophy in Oxford.His first book is Mini Philosophy: A Small Book of Big Ideas.

Civility is an underused word, these days. In a post-Freud world, we live with the idea that it’s much better to vent our emotions, than being cool or polite. If there’s an issue to be discussed, we must be as passionate or as furious as possible.

Anything less than red-faced rage is to imply we don’t care about it or that we’re not treating it seriously enough.

But what’s lost when we behave like this? If we scream and shout, what voices do we drown out? What does it do to our politics?

It’s all to do with the importance of manners. Manners are so humdrum and dull that they rarely make for discussion. Why should anyone care if you say, ‘Thank you.’, or if you let an old lady take your seat, or if you don’t swear in front of children? They’re behaviours as boringly commonplace as tying your shoes or scratching an itch.

Not so for the eighteenth-century Irish statesman, philosopher and father of modern Conservativism, Edmund Burke. He viewed manners as one of the most important aspects of society and as an essential check to governments and legalistic tyrants.

Burke argued that: ‘Manners are of more importance than laws. Upon them… the laws depend’. Manners are the unwritten expectations that allow society to function, and they are the rules by which we cooperate with one another. They’re everywhere; from how we eat in public to how we choose the family film at the weekend.

For Burke, manners were crucial because they handed responsibility to us, as individuals, and they told law makers ‘what belongs to laws, and what manners alone can regulate’.

We don’t have to hold a door open for someone, or help a stranger with their luggage, or swap seats so a mother can be with her child, but we do them anyway from our own values. If these were laws, they would strip away the responsibility that makes them moral  and unique. When any government makes a law, and when any police force interprets or enacts it, the question ought to be whether that law is needed – or whether people can be trusted to make the right, the polite, decision.

Manners vs the law

Of course, the issue surrounds what is, and is not, considered to be the remit of the law, and what is just everyday civility and manners. One area of contention surrounds ‘hate speech’ and, especially, social media. It’s clearly rude to insult someone, but at what point ought that be made illegal?

A video on Twitter caught people’s attention when Gordon Larmour, a Christian Evangelist, was charged by the police for his ‘threatening or abusive manner aggravated by prejudice relating to sexual orientation’. He was reading from the Bible (the Book of Genesis) in which certain passages are undeniably homophobic and offensive. But did this make it a crime?

From the scandal that erupted, and the subsequent acquittal by the judge, it seems not. Larmour was rude and offensive, and no matter his motivations, he was definitely antagonising people. But this does not make it a crime.

A more complicated example surrounds how governments have approached Covid-19 regulations. Much has been made of Sweden as a paragon of minimal state intervention. Rather than implement laws Stefan Lofven, the Swedish Prime Minister, called on people to demonstrate a sense of “folkvett”, which is a combination of common-sense and good manners – Burkean to the core. The Swedes, it seems, just needed to be reminded about the need to be sensible, and the need to be polite.

In a similar vein, Japan has been an odd outlier in how easily it has managed under coronavirus, without the need for the more all-encompassing measures of the rest of the developed world. This is because Japan has a long history of civility and respect. Face masks are commonplace, and cleanliness is a prized virtue.

The importance of manners in government

Burke believed that our manners are those values and norms that we place above our governments. They are what keep our political authorities in check. But, more than this, manners reflect the virtues that political institutions need in order to function. They’re the oil that makes state machinery work.

Democracies today are vast and complex leviathans. They involve armies of people, from all aspects of life, coming together to work to make the country a better place, or, at the very least, prevent it from ruin. As such, parliamentarians across all political divides need to work together. All members of the various committees, as well as those involved in the complex business of drafting laws, need to put aside their differences, and just get down to work. This would be impossible without manners.

This theme is picked up recently by Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky in their book, How Democracies Die. They argue that certain ‘norms’ (the same as Burkean ‘manners’) of liberal democracy are what allow it to work. One of the main examples they give is in the need to tolerate political oppositions.

This means not dehumanising, demeaning or demonising those with different views. It means not calling Brexiteers ‘racist, little-Englanders’, but it also means that Remainers are not ‘enemies of the people’. Holding a right-wing view does not make you a Nazi, any more than holding a left-wing one makes you a Stalinist.

When we vilify the opposition in this way, it does two things.

Firstly, it weakens the fundamental principle of democracy: that legitimate opposition is healthy. The swing of the pendulum between governments of different orders is what gives energy and dynamism to government. If we delegitimise rival pollical ideologies, we’re also wounding democracy.

Secondly, manners are the necessary requirement for any bureaucracy. In the same way that we are all expected to work with people we might not get on with, or with whom we disagree, politicians need to work with their rivals to get things done.

Likewise, politicians are ultimately just people who want to help run the country. When we turn them into punch bags or objectify them as venal and corrupt, we make collaboration and cooperation all the much harder. And, without these, very little gets done.

Manners maketh the State

Manners are of huge importance because they reveal our values and hand responsibility back to us as individuals. Today, we too often assume legislation or contracts are king, but, for Burke, these are rigid, often flawed and far inferior to the everyday common sense we all possess.

But, most importantly, manners are what allow society and any complex organisation to function at all. So long as politics goes down the route of aggressive polarisation, so long as political rivals are called any manner of names, and so long as cooperation is seen as “collaboration”, democracy will stagnate and creak to a halt.

Government needs change, it needs new blood and it needs energy. If we lose our manners, then it’s hard to see how liberal democracy can survive.