Manners, Community, and Justice pt 2

As with Part 1, there’s a certain amount of background knowledge necessary here. I’ll be summarizing Graeber’s description (all uncredited quotes are from “Manners, Deference, and Private Property“). [I am perhaps doing his essay a disservice by not engaging with its actual argument. Unfortunately I haven’t been quite able to grok it, and although I would be able to say many interesting things if I did, instead I am saying other interesting things.]

In the Middle Ages, in England at least, adolescents and young adults did wage labor, for a master, as servants or apprentices, until they had accumulated enough resources to settle down and start a family, after which they might have servants or apprentices of their own. Young men “were by nature riotous,” in manners easily compared to the joking aggression discussed previously, while full adults “were rational and self-contained,” giving a fairly clear age-based relation to “the logic of joking and avoidance.” Young men were expected to have joking interactions with their peers, but to be deferent and moderately avoidant in respect to their well-mannered masters.

Gradually, wage labor became more permanent, no longer the domain only of young people, but because it changed gradually, it remained associated with “rambunctious adolescents who needed to be disciplined and reformed through carefully supervised labor.”

Around this time, too, the English Calvinists were becoming more of a thing, and gaining political and religious power across England. “[T]he Puritans did not see any distinction between projects of social reform directed at the lower classes, and the process of educating the youth.” So the youth and the working poor alike needed, in their opinion, discipline, supervision, and moral and religious instruction.

This program was not universally popular.

There was, in fact, consistently present and semi-organized opposition, formed around a combination of “joking aggression and idealistic utopias.” There arose a narrative of the past as a time of equality and plenty.

Why is this important? Why do I care?

Without making any moral judgments or implications, I see a kind of resonance between this populist resistance to the imposition of middle-class Calvinist manners and morality, and resistance to, pardon the scare quotes, “political correctness.”

At the very least, each set of behavioral constraints includes some rules that seem fairly sensible and well-grounded: “don’t smear gross germy smelly things on stuff,” say, or “don’t call people racial slurs;” and also includes some rules that seem to serve mainly as in-group/out-group markers: “use the silverware from outside in,” or the argument over whether to used AFAB, FAAB, or CAFAB to mean “at birth, declared female.” I’ve seen people declared awful, ignorant, and malicious, in social justice discussions, for violating either type of rule.

Part of the resistance to external imposition of manners is the sense that one is being told simultaneously that one can only be considered part of the in-group if one follows the arbitrary rules, and that one must be part of the in-group to be taken seriously or accepted as worthwhile. It’s that second part, then, that sparks resistance: what if I don’t want to be part of your in-group? So what? I’m still a person, and I don’t need you to live a good life; matter of fact, life was a hell of a lot better before you came along with your fancy manners! And thus you get idealistic utopias tinted with joking aggression and carnival.

So I want to simply note that I see a resonance between that resistance, and resistance to “political correctness;” I don’t want to suggest that the latter is justified, but neither do I want to say it’s groundless. I want to explore ways it might arise, reasons it might exist. What I mean by saying “resonance” is this: if someone doesn’t understand the pain that words like slurs cause to the people they’re applied to, if most of the people they know, respect, and care about cheerfully and casually use those words, telling them it’s not okay without giving them context might feel to them like you’re saying “you need to use my weird, complicated, and ever-changing vocabulary to be in my group, and you need to be in my group if you want anyone to listen to.”

Remember that in Part 1 I argued: many American men relate to their friends in a physical, joking, aggressive, egalitarian way; if they extend this to their female friends, those women may feel unsafe because of the pre-existing imbalance of social power, and ask the men to be hands-off; because these men fail to see that imbalance, they may falsely feel that the women are trying to set up a hierarchy of avoidance, and get angry because there’s no reason for them to be on the bottom of that hierarchy.

Similarly, people who use racial slurs and other hurtful words out of ignorance don’t see the social power imbalance that makes those words powerful. When they’re told “oh, you can’t use those words any more; use these instead,” or maybe just “you can’t use those words any more,” and then years or months later, are told “you can’t use these words any more” about the words they were given last time, and sometimes get someone else entirely telling them “no, go back to the first words,” and yes, it can be even more whiplashy in some corners of the internet, with the rapidity of discourse… Well, they might start to feel as though it’s all in the service of conformity to some set of standards they never agreed to be held to, imposed by some group that thinks it has the right to dictate how people speak, when goshdarnit, it’s a free country and I can say what I damn well please, and who are you to be telling me what words I can or cannot use with my own friends and family? And then you get “political correctness” turned very nearly into a slur by itself.

If one source of resistance to “political correctness” is this feeling that all the rules are just arbitrarily imposed by people who presume to dictate your language… well, I don’t know what would be a good way to address that, but I know what’s not a good way: telling people that they’re awful for using the wrong language, without ever addressing why they’re using the wrong language.

Code-switching briefly to full-on Social Justice mode, I don’t believe it’s okay to tell someone that it’s their responsibility to educate. I do believe that if we as a group want people to end up educated, the group as a whole has a responsibility to find ways to make that happen, preferably while alienating as few allies and potential allies as possible. In the interest of backing up my words with actions, that’s part of why I’m writing these posts: I want to explore ways people can be accidentally alienated so I can figure out how to be a better educator.

Stay tuned for next week when I get my brain back, when I question the assumption that middle-class manners are the epitome of embodied morality and thereby potentially alienate half the social justice community (and internet advice blogger community) from me. 😀


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