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Can You Have Bad Manners and Be a Good Person?
You may not like the answer.
The Father of Our Country, George Washington, was known to be a man of impeccable manners. In fact, Washington’s, “Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation,” which he copied down in his childhood is still available for sale on Amazon. If you want a sense of the type of man that Washington was on this front, this story should give you a good idea:
On October 4, 1777, Washington led his troops into the Philadelphia suburb of Germantown, hoping to deal a surprise blow to the British troops stationed in the area. Marching into battle under the darkness of night, the colonial troops found themselves in a dense fog that hid them not only from their enemy but from themselves. When the American troops started firing, they mostly shot at each other, and General William Howe rode away believing that the attack was nothing more than stray rebels getting trigger-happy.
As he left the scene, mass confusion broke out. British soldiers turned a home into a fortress and easily fought off Washington's men until October 6, when the colonial troops finally retreated. In the quagmire of the battle, Howe's terrier somehow found itself with the American troops. Most likely, it wandered into the fray with Howe, and in the fog, it found itself across enemy lines.
After bringing Howe's dog back to the American campsite, Washington's men immediately suggested keeping the animal as a form of retribution against the British army. They felt the dog would be a fine trophy from their losing battle and bring down the morale of the general. However, Washington refused to do anything of the sort. Instead, he decided he was not only going to return the animal, he was going to pamper it while it was in his care.
While working out their next move, Washington brushed the dog and fed it as if it were his own. To the surprise of everyone involved—the British, the Americans, probably even the dog—Washington declared a ceasefire, sending out one of his aides with the dog and a note under a flag of truce. The note, written by...Alexander Hamilton, read:
General Washington's compliments to General Howe, does himself the pleasure to return [to] him a Dog, which accidentally fell into his hands, and by the inscription on the Collar appears to belong to General Howe.
George Washington was so incredibly popular with the American people and the military that if he wanted to do so, he could have become a dictator. Can you imagine the temptation of it? He fought to make the country free but was so beloved that the people would have WELCOMED his rule. After seeing that story about the dog, is it a surprise to you that a man who thought like that chose to do the right thing instead?
That story is relevant because, over the last decade, in particular, Americans have increasingly come to treat manners and morality as unrelated things. There are a couple of important reasons for that.
The first is that as our society has become so over-regulated and increasingly bound by legalisms, many of us have come to believe you have to be willing to cut corners and break some rules to be effective. That’s the classic theme behind movies and TV series like “Dirty Harry,” “Dexter,” Deadpool,” “Game of Thrones,” “Wolverine,” and “the Punisher.” The false idea that gets promoted in the process is that you have to be a bad guy to win. In fact, there are now people in politics that have bought into this concept who have come to errantly believe that being polite and treating other people that disagree with you with human decency is a WEAKNESS, not a strength.
The second is that modern media, particularly social media, rewards people for getting attention by any means necessary. Being rude, crude, and obnoxious is often the best way to do that. Be insulting, mock people, and generally make an ass of yourself and you can have articles written about you, get tens of thousands of likes, and get hundreds, perhaps even thousands of new followers that are hoping for you to continue to be a jerk. That’s the promise anyway. It only works for a small percentage of people, but there’s an ocean of other human beings habitually following this same noxious formula. This had led to a lot of cognitive dissonance, particularly in the political sphere. You have people who simultaneously believe that they’re good people even as they go on websites like Twitter and hurl vile abuse at people that disagree with them. How do people square that circle? Simple. By pretending that their manners and how they treat people have nothing to do with the type of person they are.
Except, as we see over and over and over again in the real world, it absolutely does. Don’t tell me that the person shouting down people that disagree with them, hurling abuse at anyone who doesn’t share their opinions, and being cruel to other people just because they think they can get away with it, are actually good people in “real life,” because chances are, they’re not. Granted, there are exceptions to every rule and yes, as Patrick Swayze said in Roadhouse, there is a time to stop being nice…
However, when is that time? Certainly, no one has an obligation to stand there and be abused, but is a different opinion abuse? Is being part of a different political party abuse? Unfortunately, an awful lot of people have started treating those things that way. We act as if the cruel things we say to people on the other side don’t count. We act as if kicking people when they’re down, glorying in their pain, trolling, and generally behaving like monsters doesn’t reflect on what type of human beings we are. Except it does. You’re not a kind, admirable person who’s making the world a better place while you’re behaving like a sociopath to people who disagree with you.
Manners are a form of kindness. They’re evidence of considering other people’s feelings and wants. They’re the lubrication that makes a society full of people with different beliefs work. An outreached hand saying, “Just because we disagree doesn’t mean we’re not still neighbors.” All of us, myself included, are deeply flawed and all of us have probably said things we regret. To those of you that haven’t, congrats on being smart enough to avoid Twitter 😉. However ultimately, this is true:
What is your portrait going to say about the type of person you are? About how you treat people that can’t do anything for you? About whether you’re a good Christian? A good American? A good role model or even a good person? There are no perfect people walking the earth and no, manners and morality don’t perfectly correlate. There are undoubtedly a few good people out there who are often unpleasant, gruff, rude, and impolite. Certainly, they exist. You may have even met one or two in your life. But is that a description of you, me, or 99% of the people we know? Probably not. Don’t kid yourself. How we treat people, including people that don’t agree with us, reflects who we are as human beings.