Thursday, April 23, 2009


We disagree.

If you're reading this, I guarantee that you and I disagree about...something. Possibly many somethings. That's fine; one of the wonderful things about this society is that we are allowed to disagree, just so long as our disagreements do not lead to violence or the infringement of another's rights. But if we discover disagreements, we have the opportunity to discuss them in a civil and respectful manner. That's a very good thing, and we are so used to such opportunity that we tend to take it for granted.

Now, let's discuss something a little different. There are many words for it...decorum, propriety...the most commonly used these days is "manners." There are good manners--holding a door for someone, smiling when you shake someone's hand, addressing your elders as "sir" or "ma'am." Then there are bad manners--shutting the door in someone's face, using racial slurs, shouting obscenities around other people's children. Good manners show a desire to be kind toward others, an aknowledgement that society has rules for how to treat other people, an acceptance of traditions stretching back for centuries. Bad manners demonstrate that one is self-centered, poorly-educated, lacking in basic social skills.

I bring this up because a few stories have been circulating in the news recently. For instance, a beauty contestant was asked a question about her opinion on a controversial topic. She gave an honest answer, honest to the point that it showed clear disagreement with the current President's policies, but she did it in a thoughtful and respectful manner.

She won the pageant.

Oh were probably thinking about the first runner-up. She also had a controversial question to answer, and her answer was consistent with publicly stated positions from the President, Vice President, and Secretary of State. Her answer was also consistent with the majority of voters in her home state of California. She answered politely, even though her wording was a bit clumsy, and even acknowledged her understanding that many in the audience would disagree with her and that she intended no offense. She demonstrated that even when she disagreed with someone else, she still had good manners.

Some of the judges weren't so...polite. One of them even launched a written and verbal tirade, more than once, calling her all sorts of inappropriate names-names you wouldn't want anyone to use on your mother, daughter, or sister-and even threatening physical violence against her. In his mind, it wasn't enough that she didn't agree with him. Her lack of conformity to his expectations completely removed any right she had to even be a participant. Other judges and sponsors of the pageant, rather than standing up for the young lady who had the audacity to be honest, sided with the offended judge, sharing his dismay that such a horrible opinion could ever be held by one of their participants. In short, they displayed horribly bad manners.

Tom Tancredo, a Congressional representative from North Carolina, was about to give a talk about illegal immigration to a group of students at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. A group of demonstrators who disagreed with his stated position on the issue stormed in, displaying a large banner on stage directly in front of him. They chanted, they yelled, they pounded on the window and even broke the glass. He had to leave before finishing his remarks as his safety was in question by that point. Rather than politely listen to a dissenting opinion, these intellectually robust and emotionally thoughtful students decided the best reaction was to throw a tantrum. One wonders how their parents dealt with their unruly grocery store behavior as children. Did their professors apologize for the students' immaturity? Their bad manners? Their thoughtless treatment of an invited guest who was a duly elected public official? No, they defended the demonstration as free speech.

Clearly, our culture values the importance of free speech. Our culture, however, clearly does not value the importance of good manners. Freedom of expression is a hallmark of a society that can embrace new and unusual ideas. Intolerance of dissenting opinion is a hallmark of a society that has forgotten how to play with others and is in need of some serious discipline.

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