Politeness is often the veneer that disguises our most barbaric instincts—as a look to the past reminds usby Freya Johnston / June 18, 2018 / Leave a comment
“Never park here,” thunders a sign attached to the railings of one Oxford college. As such communications go, this one has plenty to recommend it—but alas its brevity is far from typical. In recent years there has been a surge in the number of English signs identifying themselves as a “Polite Notice.” These two six-letter words often herald a long message that errs in every other respect on the side of impoliteness: “Stop pissing all over the lavatory like a fucking animal,” to take one recently spotted example. That is, admittedly, an unusual instance of the genre. The majority of polite notices have to do with cars and where not to put them, rather than with toilets and how not to treat them.
“Stop pissing…” adopts a very different tone from that I remember noticing in pub conveniences in the 1970s and 80s: “If you sprinkle when you tinkle, be a sweetie and wipe the seatie.” Could that twee little poem be called a truly polite notice? Well yes, in the sense that it doesn’t unleash a torrent of expletives, nor does it assume that you’re at fault; it tries to flatter you into good behaviour rather than abuse you for your crimes or beastliness. But the chief reason for its superior politeness is that it doesn’t tell you it is being polite in the first place.
The passive-aggressive “Polite Notice” offers a little review of itself before you’ve got to the gist of what it’s ordering you to do—or, typically, what not to do. Don’t get annoyed by what I’m about to say, it suggests: I’m polite, you know. (Giving inanimate objects or vehicles a first-person voice is another curious feature of modern British manners: a bus will sometimes announce to hopeful travellers, “Sorry, I’m not in service”). Polite notices tell you how to respond to them before you’ve even got to the bit that tells you how to behave. They are polite, after all.
This sort of thing is everywhere. Children and adults will often say “no offence” before or after saying something crushingly offensive, or introduce a nasty remark with a phrase along the lines of “I wouldn’t want you to think I’m nasty, but…” Politicians sometimes say “with respect” to interviewers before making clear their contempt for the question. There’s nothing new about rhetorical devices that let you have your cake and eat it—“not to mention the weather” gives speakers the chance both to mention that blasted weather and to leave it out. But the subgenre of such remarks that tries to dictate in advance how its targets might categorise it, and by extension the character of whoever might be saying it, does seem to be a recent and peculiar development.
The irritation it causes to those of us who get riled by such things is that the person writing the “Polite Notice” or concluding an email with “Kind regards” is incorporating a positive appraisal of themselves into what they are about to say. Whatever else it may be, this represents a nibble at our freedom as individuals. Polite notices and kind regards try to deny our capacity to make up our own minds about them and the effects of what they say.
Why is it worse to conclude with “Kind regards” than “Yours sincerely”? Because kindness is something that necessarily involves the other person, the one to whom you are writing, and it’s that person, the recipient of the message, who ought to be judging whether what you’ve said is kind or not. It isn’t for you, the sender of the regards, to say. Sincerity, on the other hand, is feasibly in the power of the sender to judge, so it is an appropriate thing to claim on his or her own behalf (even if the recipient may have good cause to suspect a complete absence of sincere feelings).
All this is only to argue that any discussion or history of manners has to concern itself as much with their reception as with their acquisition or imposition. To be understood as polite or civil, a way of speaking or behaving needs another person to recognise it as such. What also needs to be recognised is that an alternative, impolite way of handling the same subject or situation is always available (and indeed sometimes unleashed by politeness, as in the stream of expletives following that toilet notice).
The historian Keith Thomas points out in The Pursuit of Civility that “the notion of civilisation is essentially relative: it has to have an opposite to be intelligible.” In any society worthy of the name, understanding something of that relativity and opposition also means understanding that we are free to bend or fudge the rules; to complain about them; to laugh at them. Such freedom is a defining feature of community, tolerance and interdependence, which is why it is so essentially impolite to tell other people how to respond to you, or to assume in advance that they will do exactly what you say they should.
As Thomas’s clear, elegant and rangy new book serves to show, one theory of civility will tell you that it is all about acknowledging the separate existence, property, privacy and right to respect of another person. But another prevalent and persuasive theory of civility will insist that such codes of behaviour are all about subjugation: they are visited on people who must be brought to order rather than treated as equals. Thomas quotes the antiquarian Edmund Bolton (born around 1575), who announced that it was “no infelicity to the barbarous” to be “subdued by the more polite and noble”; after all, to possess “wild freedom” meant nothing compared with the gifts from above of “liberal arts and honourable manners.” It isn’t hard to imagine what the wild and free response to that might sound like.
Thomas finds it “paradoxical” that “the English were deeply involved in the slave trade at a time when their enthusiasm for personal liberty had never been greater.” But mightn’t the English enthusiasm for freedom have been so marked precisely because of their involvement in the slave trade? The denial of liberty to a group of people whose value as traded commodities permitted the rise of English wealth, and therefore refinement and polished manners, would have fostered a sharp awareness of the value of freedom—whether or not those enthusiasts for liberty openly acknowledged its mirror image in the slave trade. Beyond observing that “Internal civility, it seemed, was wholly compatible with external barbarism,” Thomas does not try to answer Samuel Johnson’s question about the Americans who wanted independence (which he quotes): “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” But this kind of rude enquiry must be absolutely central to any history of civilised life, whether we are thinking about the imposition of western values on other nations or about the more general claim that there can be, as Friedrich Nietzsche pointed out, no feast without cruelty.
Refinement is inevitably a paradox, since to the same extent that human beings can be shown to have advanced culturally and socially we can also be shown to have declined in virtue and vigour—not least because what has allowed us to advance is, among other things, the exploitation of other people. The first book of William Cowper’s great rambling poem The Task (1785) traces the British ascent to civility from the “hardy chief” who took his brief repose on a “rugged rock” to the modern poet, lolling about indoors on a nice comfy sofa. Cowper, a keen abolitionist, enumerates “the blessings of civilised life,” to be sure, concluding that it is a desirable state. But his final view is of “the fatal effects of dissipation and effeminacy,” a loss of innocence and native strength that will always accompany greater riches and sophistication.
The first appearance in print of Norbert Elias’s The Civilising Process (1939), the broadest and most influential study to date of European manners, coincided with the beginning of the Second World War, and with good reason. Elias was attempting to explain the necessary interplay between violence and civilisation, rather than the ceding of one to the other. His book gained little attention for the next three decades, however, until the first volume—on the history of manners—was translated into English. In that same year, 1969, Kenneth Clark’s lavish documentary series Civilisation first aired on BBC2 (its nine-episode sequel, Civilisations, was shown earlier this year). Elias argued that post-medieval attitudes to sex, cruelty, bodily functions, table manners and forms of speech had been gradually redefined by higher and higher thresholds of shame and repugnance, and by the increasing exercise of self-restraint in individual behaviour.
Elias’s work was criticised, as was Kenneth Clark’s, by some who thought it assumed too remorseless a model of European progress from barbarism to refinement. However, as Elias himself pointed out, he never equated western sophistication with superiority to other cultures, while the subtitle of Clark’s series, “A Personal View,” was intended to disclaim comprehensiveness.
The BBC has explained that the new Civilisations—fronted by three presenters—offers more than “one man’s personal view of western European civilisation.” This one-man view is exactly what we have in Thomas’s The Pursuit of Civility, and such a perspective still has plenty to offer. In seven thorough, well-plotted chapters Thomas patiently unpicks the vocabulary of manners and considers how it might involve or come into conflict with the dictates of morality and compassion. His approach may be rooted in western culture of the early modern period, but in his discussions of trade and slavery he frequently looks beyond it. He is alive to the limitations and contradictions of his human subjects, as well as to the vitality and influence of their achievements.
There are some funny moments here. One involves Keith Thomas’s lunchtime encounter with Norbert Elias, “world authority on the history of table manners,” when Thomas apparently knocked a jug of water all over the table. Elias’s response is not recorded; perhaps it was unprintable. It would have been good to learn more about comparable embarrassments in the early modern period—tales such as that reported by John Aubrey involving the Earl of Oxford (1550-1604), who, “making of his low obeisance to Queen Elizabeth, happened to let a Fart, at which he was so abashed and ashamed that he went to Travel [for] seven years. On his return the Queen welcomed him home, and said, ‘My Lord, I had forgot the Fart.’”
But there are far more examples in The Pursuit of Civility of those flaunting a lack of embarrassment than of those suffering from an excess of it. Few women appear in this study, but one of the best is both nameless and shamelessly polite in the act of relieving herself: “I have known an old woman in Holland set herself on the next hole to a gentleman,” observed one 18th-century traveller, “and civilly offer him her mussel shell by way of scraper after she had done with it herself.”
Thomas’s distinguished career as a historian might be summarised as one of subduing wildness to order; his previous books have concerned themselves with the decline of magic, the suppression of misrule in schools, and man’s relationship to animals. His sense of the proximity of the supernatural, anarchic, or non-human to our most civilised institutions may be what led him to style this latest study The Pursuit of Civility, rather than (say) a “Rise” or a “Triumph.” Civility might well be unattainable, as elusive or shifting a target as happiness itself.
Perhaps what is most heartening, in the end, is neither strict conformity to the rules of civilised life, nor utter disregard for them, but the ability of human beings to honour a breach in the observance and an observance in the breach. William Empson concluded in 1935 that a “gentleman was not the slave of conventions because at need he could destroy them.”
He doesn’t destroy them, but the point is that he could if he had to, and perhaps all of us can aspire to be gentlemen, in that regard at least. There are countless excellent examples of people somehow contriving at one and the same time to endorse and resist the manners imposed on them and the claims made about them.
Here’s one. About five years ago, a series of American billboards attempted to persuade men to undertake preventative medical testing in order to catch the early symptoms of cancer, heart disease and other life-sapping conditions. The slogan adopted to encourage these stereotypically reluctant male citizens to undergo a check-up was: “This year thousands of men will die from stubbornness.” Beneath one of these well-meant notices appeared the reply, in spray paint, at once rebelling against and fatally confirming that prognosis: “No we won’t.”
In Pursuit of Civility: Manners and Civilisation in Early Modern England by Keith Thomas is out now from Yale University Press (£20)