Joe Biden…How Rude! Do Manners Matter Anymore?

Now that the dust has settled from last week’s VP debate, we have a better chance to assess the long term effect of the performances.

Many comments have been made about the number of times Vice President Biden interrupted either his opponent, Congressman Paul Ryan, or the moderator (more than 80 times total). I believe that the long-term effect of the debate—regardless of what either said about policy or statistics—may well be the issue of how “rude” Biden’s behavior was towards Ryan.

Though content should remain our focus, particularly as we edge closer to the election, civil discourse is a topic that should be revisited from time to time.

Do basic manners matter anymore? “Please.” “Thank you.” Wait your turn to talk. Write thank you notes—in a timely manner (I still struggle with that one.) Manners do matter, and I’ll explain why in a moment.

Politics has virtually always had an uncivil tone. Frankly, today’s politics (generally) can be viewed as relatively tame.

In 1856, anti-slavery Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts was nearly beaten to death by a pro-slavery Congressman from South Carolina. This took place in the U.S. Capitol!

As Art Carney (aka Ed Norton) from 1950s TV comedy, The Honeymooners, might say: “Sheesh, what a grouch!”

It took years for Sumner to recover.

I believe there really is a link between manners and morals. William Wilberforce, the great 18th-19th century Christian statesman, who spent his lifetime championing the cause of abolishing the slave trade and slavery in the British Empire as a longtime Member of Parliament, was also engaged in a lesser known crusade.

He and other reformers in pre-Victorian England pushed for what they called “the reformation of manners.” The modern translation of that would be “the reformation of morals.”

In short, manners and morals are related. But they are not the same. A person can have great manners and be morally corrupt. The Eddy Haskell character on another 50s TV show, Leave it to Beaver, provides a classic humorous example of that.

However, if you remove manners from society, we are left with a more crass and crude world. Outward good manners are generally a reflection of inside decency and kindness and reflect the Christian concept of putting others ahead of self.

We know we’re supposed to love our neighbor as ourselves. At just about every wedding, they read the love chapter from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. Included in that chapter is: “Love is…not rude.”

Employing basic good manners also applies the golden rule of Christ. It’s treating others as we would want to be treated.

Schools today often have serious problems with discipline. At a more basic level, good manners are gone. In some cases, the schools are even unsafe.

My daughter taught English as a second language in rural Thailand for a semester a few years ago. She marveled at how polite and well-behaved the students were. As she would walk into each class, a student volunteer would shout out, “Stand up, class!” They all stood up for the teacher. Then they would cheerfully say in unison, “Good morning, teacher!” They would not sit down until she let them. Needless to say, there was no need for metal detectors in those schools.

Part of the reason manners are important is because the little things are important. When Mayor Rudy Giuliani cleaned up New York City in the 1990s, he managed to curb crime significantly by clamping down on the little things.

Riding the subway was very cheap then. So when unsavory characters would hop over the subway turnstiles to steal a ride, they were only stealing a few dollars. Yet the city hampered turnstile-hopping, and in the process greatly reduced crime on the subways.

Spraying graffiti was a relatively minor crime, yet they clamped down on graffiti and in the process, they greatly reduced crime. That’s because the graffiti could signal a welcome for thugs to engage in more serious crimes.

In his book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell writes of the “Broken Windows theory,” postulated by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling: “If a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge. Soon, more windows will be broken, and the sense of anarchy will spread from the building to the street on which it faces, sending a signal that anything goes” (p. 141).

Rudeness and boorish behavior send a signal that anything goes. Bad manners can signal a breakdown in civilized behavior. All the while, the test of good manners is to put up with bad ones.

Yes, sir, manners matter.