Manners

What is it that separates humans from animals?  This is a question I have mulled often over the years, but revisited more intently in recent months.  While there are certainly many differences which can be observed, there are two distinctions which I would class as primary.  Firstly is the degree to which humans are capable of abstract thought.  Though members of the animal nation demonstrate a rudimentary (by human standards) competence at abstraction (witness crows and simians that can use tools, for instance), it is the depth and breadth of the human ability to abstract which has led directly or indirectly to every technological breakthrough and artistic statement in the whole of the history of our species on this Planet.  The second trait distinguishing homo sapiens from all other life on Earth is our capacity for impulse management and civilized interaction which I refer to simply as manners.

The human ability to abstract can be considered a calculating and cognitive left-brain process. Our capacity for manners can be seen as a function and emotional component of the right-brain.  Each attribute serves as a compliment and counterpoise to the other.  As our ability to abstract continues to develop, so too does our capacity to interact with and influence our physical surroundings.  And it is the degree and the extent to which we evidence our manners that demonstrates the progress of our evolution both culturally and as individuals.  It is in manners where is displayed our highest refinement as a species.

It should be understood that the manners of which I speak are not merely some perfunctory etiquette, behavioral mores observed solely to facilitate routine coexistence.  Manners, as postulated here, go much further and speak more to a genuine and expressed dignity that demonstrates a profound appreciation of and respect for Life, Self, and Others.

Over the course of recorded history, the development of these two attributes have more or less paced one another in a dance of give and take with, generally speaking, neither outstripping the other by very far for very long.  It could be argued that the Golden Age of our twin natures was from the mid-18th century until the dawning of the 20th.  By the start of the 20th century’s second decade, something began to change.

Fast-forward to the present.  Technology rules the day.  If there can be consensus that our abstraction and its now ubiquitous computerized offspring has taken such a commanding lead, even a cursory appraisal would suggest that the continued development and utilization of manners is currently, at best, stunted or, at the worst, regressing at an exponential rate.

As technology has advanced to its current state of the art, we find ourselves able to communicate with one person or, potentially, millions of people instantaneously around the world with no more effort than is required to tap a few characters into a keyboard and then press SEND.  We have come to use these products of our abstraction as a means to debase our manners.  The root of the problem, however, is not with the technological fruits of our left-brain intellect per se; technology is just the vehicle.  The conundrum that is the assault on manners arises from a deficiency in and of the very manners that are themselves under assault.

The present vector of our faltering manners is one that self-sustains and self-proliferates.  The attrition of a refined Lebensweise and cultivated self-expression is a consuming and spreading fire that with enthusiasm adds fuel to itself.  Essentially, withering manners are contagious and pathological.

Twitter, Facebook, Google+, internet chat forums and the like have become contemporary virtual equivalents of the parlor or drawing room of old, but very often playing host to precious little of the civility and decorum customarily exhibited in those antiquated chambers.  In these incorporeal analogs, modern discourse has been reduced to the inorganic limit of 280 characters or to digitized photos and cartoons regularly overlaid with snide paralogisms.

The technology that facilitates this widespread interaction has the added simultaneous effect of fostering the monolithic comfort and impulsive daring of anonymity.  This implied and inferred veil of anonymity provides copious opportunities for the drive by insult and the spiteful zinger, which are but two of the manifestations of a waning sophistication.

Even should a factual personal profile be posted and no alias ever used, there is still the inherent element of being one step removed and thus at least marginally anonymous.  It is in the incubator of anonymity where bad manners are most likely to breed.

This is not to say that anonymous animosity is the sole source of unchecked impulses and less than elegant interaction in the virtual world.  Often, ignorance or a distorted perception as to the clarity with which one’s message is presented and/or will be received is at fault.  Many honest and sincere attempts at self-expression and the communication of heartfelt ideals are derailed by poorly considered and ill-mannered assertions.  What the author/poster imagines to be insightful, witty, and clever is more often inciteful, snarky, and mean-spirited, which results in doing absolutely nothing to forward dialog or civil debate. Ultimately, no one’s mind is changed and the trenches of division between contrasting positions are only dug deeper.  The only ones to consider and applaud such a post are those who are already in agreement with the author’s position, thus, an opportunity for constructive discussion is effectively jettisoned in favor of what could be interpreted as nothing more than a display of tawdry and caustic self-satisfaction.  Regardless of whether the boorish dispatch springs from animus or ignorance, the result remains the same.

It is a matter of course that what we express should be important to us; if it is not important, then what is the point of expressing it at all, beyond the shallow satisfaction of hearing or reading our own words?  It is, however, critically important to be aware that, due to the nature of the way humans communicate, how we express is equally as important as the sentiment itself.  For the mannered person, there must be integrity and consistency between intent and expression, between thought and deed.

As an extreme example, consider that I can say to an acquaintance “you are important to me,” but if I do so with loathing in my eyes or a measure of acid in my tone, then what I say is and always shall be overridden and overwritten by the way I say it.  This was a lesson yours truly learned the hard way.

In the early days of the internet (way back in the mid-1990s) I created and maintained a personal web presence that could be considered a forerunner to the contemporary blog.  In expressing my opinions there, I was crass, inconsiderate, impudent, immature, and ill-advised in my approach.  It saddens me very nearly to the point of shame when I consider the times past when I displayed the grace of an ogre, the tact of an ingrate, and the skillful means of a halfwit when trying to share an opinion or convey a truth.  I have since often wondered how many people discounted what I had to say simply because of the way I chose to say it.

Fortunately, the virulent nature of my ignorance did not prove itself to be incurable.  Over time and with much contemplation and reflection, I was reminded that I was a teacher of a discipline (Zen) that extols the merits of, among other things, reasoned interaction, peaceful coexistence, and the enduring certainty of cause and effect, that is, the inevitability of Karma.  I recognized the gravity of the fundamental proposition that, even in something as apparently anodyne as a personal editorial, what I gave out would be inextricably woven into the fabric of that which would return to me, very often multiplied.  It took much longer than it should have but, through the years, I managed to find a mature and mannered voice in spite of myself.

Lest there be any confusion, I do not discourage anyone from sharing an opinion, any more than I suggest that opinions themselves are bad things.  It should also be understood that I do not call for the evisceration or abandonment of one’s heartfelt positions or passions on any given subject.  To presume that passion and well-mannered expression are mutually exclusive is to presume in error.  To have manners is not to quash or otherwise enfeeble one’s passion.  The interesting irony is that a restrained passion is often the more powerful passion.  Certainly a well-mannered passion enjoys the greater prospect of receiving a fair hearing.

I now strive continually to carry myself with the comportment and grace, that is, the manners, of a respected elder.  Sadly, in this effort I do not always succeed.  I can, however, say with a clear conscience that any lapses I experience are unintentional and are no longer the product of intent as they so often were in the past.

Bad manners breed worse manners.  It is fortunate that the converse is also true.  As with all things in Life, that which is given energy is that which grows.  It is a simple matter to restore a more balanced equilibrium and bring our right-brain manners back into parity with our left-brain abstractions.  We have a choice.  Be nice!  Think before pushing the SEND button.  Let this new (old) perspective become “viral” and spread, not only in the virtual world, but in the real world as well.  It is the evolved and civilized thing to do.

©Billy Red Horse

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