Saturday, January 20, 2018

How Courtesy Protects Freedom from the Law

All political leaders pursue policies that are disliked by some citizens. In America, citizens occasionally protest disliked policies by publicly burning an American flag.
After such incidents, numbers of other citizens sometimes demand that political leaders amend the Constitution to make such acts of disrespect fundamentally illegal.
In her book, Miss Manners® Rescues Civilization (1996), author Judith Martin questions the wisdom of both that protest and that demand. She does this in the name of freedom.
Miss Manners teaches us that there are different types of etiquette. One type guides our use of symbols such as flags. Persons publicly burning an American flag do so knowing that they are violating shared rules of symbolic etiquette. By deliberately being offensive, they know that many people will respond to their rudeness with disgust and anger.
While being the first to acknowledge the rudeness of flag-burning, Miss Manners cautions us against responding to it with violence—whether our own or that of the police. After all, “in its very capacity as peacekeeper it [etiquette] recognizes the value of exchanging hostilities on a symbolic level, in place of the alternative methods of dispute. Diplomacy, not war” (74).
This leads Miss Manners to draw our attention to the relative merit of etiquette over the law. For any group or society to function well, almost everyone almost all of the time must behave well. Almost all of this good behavior must occur voluntarily. Etiquette is the best way of encouraging this. It is universally recognized yet adaptable to each particular circumstance. The law is too blunt an instrument. In good Chalcedonian fashion, a delicate balance needs to be maintained between the two—with priority going to etiquette. Otherwise, “we weaken the complicated regulative structure under which we live. This is a trend which Miss Manners finds scary, as should other freedom-loving citizens” (72).
Miss Manners reassures us that etiquette does an even better job at discouraging rude behavior than the law does. “The fear of offending public sensibility by flouting etiquette is not, Miss Manners maintains, a negligible deterrent: the amount of voluntary restraint etiquette inspires is incalculable” (73). If one disgusts or angers others frequently enough, or severely enough, one’s group will respond by either isolating one through shunning or by expelling one altogether. Few persons are willing to risk such isolation and expulsion.
As prophetic witnesses to Jesus Christ, we daily seek to affirm our freedom for others. One way we may do this is by voluntarily making courteous speech and behavior a habit. This is important as we interact with other members of our church. It is crucial when we converse with them about issues which the gods of politics, war, technology, sex, money, and consumption would like to use to inflame our passions, make rude our behavior, and destroy our community.
Once we get good as church at responding to challenges with both wisdom and charm, perhaps then Jesus will call us to help our fellow citizens. With them we all need to protect our freedom by resisting the trend to change all violations of etiquette into crimes.

Copyright © 2018 by Steven Farsaci.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.