Bring Back Miss Manners
December 2, 2019
This week I'm going to deviate from current events and instead talk about hate. Hate is not new in the United States, just as it is not new anywhere. We've hated foreigners—initially the British, then immigrants from most anywhere, then each other during the Civil War, then the Germans and Japanese, followed by the Russians, and now possibly the Chinese. We seem to be pretty good at hating, though our diversity and relative youth as a country makes us less good at hating than many others, who nurture centuries-old grievances and insults, real or imagined. After World War II, the United States hoped to construct a world where hate was not a value and where trade would deter economic nationalism and serve as an important tool toward bringing people closer together. For a long time, it looked like we were succeeding, but now I’m beginning to wonder.
Why do we hate? I believe that fundamentally it is fear of the "other"—those who do not look like us, talk like us, wear the same clothes as us, worship like us, or generally behave like us. Humans have been doing that forever. At the national level in war time, deciding who is "us" and "them" is easy. In normal times, though, as we go about our daily lives, we often find ourselves surrounded by "them"—neighbors, classmates, or coworkers of a different race, religion, or ethnic group.
For the most part, those daily interactions occur without incident despite underlying prejudice. Most people want to be good neighbors, students, and employees, and they hide any discomfort behind politeness and good manners. In recent years though, that has begun to erode as we have increasingly seen how an incident—a traffic stop that turns violent, a protest, a shooting that is self-defense from one perspective and murder from another—can quickly strip away the veneer of civility and reveal the depths of racism, xenophobia, and other forms of hatred. Communities that have lived side by side for years are suddenly torn apart as friends and neighbors become bitter enemies.
This is also not new in U.S. history, but it seems to be getting worse. I think there are several reasons for that. First, the country is changing faster than it used to, and long-time majorities, primarily white males, are becoming minorities in their communities. They see their world spinning out of their control, while the new majorities see power gradually becoming more balanced but not fast enough. For the former, resistance is as inevitable as it is futile; demography always wins. The obvious demographic solution—have more babies—only works in the long term.
Second, for the latter, progress leads to demands for more, and faster, progress. Minorities are tired of gradualism, and they increasingly have the political and economic power to do something about it, but, as recent elections demonstrate, that power is not evenly distributed around the country, so the divisions between different regions continues to grow, as does the battle for control of the national agenda.
Third, the United States has a president who is a divider rather than a unifier and who does not practice the degree of civility normally expected in a chief executive. He encourages us to distinguish ourselves from each other, and he exploits those differences for his own political gain. The implicit message from the White House is that hatred is okay, and his own threats, insults, and bluster encourage people to behave in ways they previously would have suppressed.
Fourth, the behavioral bar has been raised. In the past, removal of obvious elements of discrimination maintained by governments was enough. No longer. Now the spotlight shines on individual actions—the swastika or racial epithet on the wall, the shouted drive-by insult, the casual and often unconscious condescending treatment of immigrants. The objects of those assaults are no longer taking them silently but are standing up and demanding not only better behavior but better thinking. It is not enough to not act like a racist; you must not be a racist.
Raising the bar is good news because it shows we have come a long way in the past 75 years in beating down the obvious elements of prejudice, but it also reveals how much farther we have to go. As human beings we remain far from perfect. The millennial generation gives us hope because their attitudes are more open to the “other” than older generations, but it may be a long time before they’re in charge.
Meanwhile, the struggle goes on, and my personal plea is a simple one—even if we can't get our thoughts right, we can at least have good manners. The objectionable behavior that is plaguing our society is wrong on many levels, but on the surface, it is simply rude. It is not all right to scream at people you disagree with or troll or threaten them on social media. Screaming “lock her up” (or, next year, quite possibly “lock him up”) at a campaign rally may be an exercise of your First Amendment rights, but that doesn’t mean it's okay. As Miss Manners would undoubtedly say, etiquette is the glue that holds society together, and you can see the consequences when so many people, beginning with the president, ignore her. So, my Thanksgiving wish is that while we wrestle with the better angels of our nature to eliminate racism and xenophobia, we should at the very least not mess with Miss Manners. It’s for our own good.
William Reinsch holds the Scholl Chair in International Business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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