Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Manners  and  Morals
Thursday 11th April 2013

These are more closely linked than you might at first think. A baby growing up learns much from its surroundings and its interactions. One of the vital things it learns is the protocols for interactions in its family and beyond. Sociologists call this “socialisation”. It is vital in an evolutionary sense because an individual's chance of survival plummets if it is rejected by its family, or outcast from its social group. So it should come as no surprise that humans are very good at learning social mores and manners, in fact we have a significant part of our brains, the frontal lobe, specialising in this function. The recent film “Quartet” features as a sub-plot a sanitised version of a man with frontal lobe damage. The film manages to make it amusing that he has no social inhibitions. In real life I have seen for instance a wife throw her frontal-lobe-damaged husband out because she could not cope with his lack of social awareness. It is disastrous, not amusing.

The point of this rather long winded introduction is that humans have evolved with the ability to make fine judgements on appropriate behaviour.

Manners are both noticeable and subtle. A century or so ago what you did if you were in a social setting and another person entered the room was quite complicated, but people's brains produced the right behaviour without hesitation. It was complicated because it depended on many factors: your age, gender and social status. The other person's age, gender and social status, the degree of intimacy between you. (ie were you family, friends acquaintances or strangers) the formality of the setting, and say for an older gentleman standing when a young girl entered, a desire make the other person feel accepted perhaps even honoured.

Quite complex, but our frontal lobes are so well developed for this very task that while we had to be taught the particular customs of our society (socialised) the requisite calculations were performed so seamlessly that it seemed 'instinctive'.

I can remember as a boy, I never had to think (let alone agonise over the right action) if I was sitting in a crowded bus or train and a lady was standing. I got up and offered my seat. It was a 'no-brainer'.

By the time I was working once clear-cut social rules were being ignored. Then the train situation became a nightmare. What was I to do? My old social training told me to get up. The new mores were to stay seated unless the lady was clearly unwell or heavily pregnant. Now I had to decide what to do in every situation. Sometimes I got up – one time I remember a man standing nearby elbowed the lady out of the way and sat down himself! Sometimes I looked out the window pretending I could see no lady, but growing redder every minute with embarrassment.

Oh how much better it was to have clear rules of behaviour!

Some of you may now be anticipating the connection I am about to draw between manners and morals.

Just as the old manners were swept away in the 60's and 70's, so too the old morals are being eroded. In the case of morals it seems to be a pincer movement.

One pincer is tearing down the old in order to erect the new.

I can remember when “censorship” was being attacked as evil paternalism. I was a bit late for “lady Chatterley's Lover” although I remember my sister reading a smuggled copy of the banned work. I was in time to go to a rebel performance of a play which had just been banned for its lewdness. And I am embarrassed to say that when there was uproar over a TV (yes we had it back then!) show where the amorous young man put his hand up the girlfriend's skirt, I wrote to the newspaper pointing out how much more suggestive Shakespeare was in “King Lear” which was our English text that year.

Half a century or so on is censorship a thing of the past? Not likely! Oh the old censorship was pulled down, only to be replaced with the censorship of “Political Correctness”.

The punishments, interestingly are far more harsh under this new brand of censorship. You can be as lewd as you like in print or film. You can be as blasphemous as you like – as long as you only blaspheme the Christian God. But dare to transgress political correctness, say a comment, even light-heartedly in jest that is male chauvinist, racist, or against say same sex unions and you may face utter ruin. Public pillory (metaphorically– for now), loss of job, friends, career and all this with no possible expiation of your 'sin' or any hope of redemption.

I am not saying anyone ought to make such comments, just that the punishment does seem rather harsh.

The other arm of the pincer movement is the pulling down of the old morality as a guide to actions, not as with the example above to replace it with the “new morality” but to leave people without rules at all.

This is reminiscent of the ancient Israelites having to make bricks and find their own straw. People now face the prospect of having to work out “what is the right thing to do” for themselves as well as do it.

This of course is the point of comparison between manners and morals I was leading up to in telling my experiences of giving my seat to a lady on the train.

Come back next week for more discussion on this arm of the pincer

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