The past year’s national debates about anthem posture and sexual harassment have been polarizing. Much of the debate has honed in on freedom—people have a right to kneel during the anthem if they want to, don’t they? Shouldn’t female empowerment mean freedom from the threat of sexual harassment? But perhaps these matters are less about freedom, and more about social manners. And perhaps this nation-wide splintering of opinion calls for a response greater than protest—rather, it calls for a response of heroic generosity.
Admittedly, manners is not as exhilarating a topic as freedom; think manners and “eat your green beans” comes to mind, whereas freedom calls to mind Mel Gibson’s Braveheart. But freedom is not the only relevant talking point in the heated national conversations about culture, and social manners subtly but essentially factors into our national happiness. This is not about Emily Post; it is about the relationship between social manners and the common good.
I think back to a conversation at an Octoberfest celebration in Denver, when a man told me that he once refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance because he knew that he “was a free human being and to have to be forced to pledge allegiance to anything was not part of his basic human rights.” Mark Steyn took up this point during the heat of the anthem protests, provocatively comparing kneeling during the national anthem to breaking out in obscenities at your grandmother’s funeral. It is really less about freedom, he argued, more about manners. Allowing the debate to pivot around freedom sends those upset by the anthem protests retreating into the realm of law. Then the situation becomes something like this, Steyn said: “The domain of absolute freedom nibbles away at the domain of manners from one end, and the domain of law answers with a response correct in legal terms but which in itself nibbles away at manners from the other end.”
For many, feeling disrespected in our society seems to have become a license for acting disrespectfully. Freedom of expression has become the freedom to disrespect when disrespected. But if our response to real or perceived injustice is itself uncivil, are we actually promoting positive cultural change? Civility requires that respect is given even when it is not received. For instance, the decision to share my national identity with those who disagree with me about political matters extends beyond my hopes that everyone will eventually agree with me. Politeness is a requirement to build community, which is ironically alluded to in the similarity of the word “polite” to polis, the Greek word for “city” and “politics.”
The #MeToo movement, in a very different way, also points to how crippled the domain of manners is in our nation. The movement often legitimately spirals around freedom— women’s right to be free from sexual harassment—and has effectively wielded the power of anger to displace accused harassers, even bringing legal charges against seemingly unshakeable men. Time magazine celebrated the #MeToo movement as 2017’s Person of the Year, describing how “these silence breakers have started a revolution of refusal.” The women denouncing harassers have enacted change, certainly, and the movement has drawn on both the language of freedom and the force of law to bring to light countless tragic incidents of exploitation that should never have happened. Yet, even as women have a right, arguably a duty, to protest immorality, protesting alone cannot fix what the movement calls attention to: a lack of universally accepted societal values, especially regarding sexual mores. The problem is bigger than the actions of individual harassers. Often in the name of liberty, our culture has undermined human sensitivity to civility, in a particularly painful way between the sexes, but in other areas too.
In between freedom and law lies this realm of social manners— a collection of shared values, vision, and cultural heritage. Manners may seem more trivial than freedom, and less worth fighting for, but they are a vital necessity for a culture to flourish, even to truly exist as a cohesive polity. Social manners contribute to the common good, which new natural law theorist John Finnis describes as “the whole ensemble of material and other conditions, including forms of collaboration, that tend to favor, facilitate, and foster the realization by each individual of his or her personal development.”
What both anthem debates and the #MeToo tales of exploitation reveal is a splintering of shared values, a splintering of those social manners that allow citizens to effectively collaborate, whether it be for authentic patriotism or respecting the dignity of women. This should be concerning to persons at every point of the political spectrum because sharing a healthy common life as Americans necessitates common manners. So, what can be done to regain mutual respect and find common ground?
The challenge of splintered social manners calls for a response of heroic generosity. True generosity reaches the root of suffering and injustice, and, by its touch, begins to heal the splinters between persons and reteach respect. Consider the recent witness of Irma Dulce, a Brazilian nun in the process of being canonized by the Catholic Church. Sister Dulce devoted her life to personally responding to the poor she encountered, tending their wounds, finding shelters to house them, and physically carrying them to shelter herself if necessary. In the face of government opposition, lack of funding, and poor personal health, Sister Dulce worked tirelessly for the health needs of the poor, establishing a lasting health care system. Her generous response overflowed from her feeble body, imparting a remarkable model to those she encountered and inspiring others to follow her example of self-gift.
Despite the corruption, deep suffering, and injustice Sister Dulce encountered on a daily basis, she focused her energies not on protests or demonstrations, but on respecting others, through generous acts of love poured forth on those she encountered. In this way she addressed the heart of the suffering in Brazil, immersing the splintered lives she encountered in love. Her generosity bore great fruit and she was extremely effective in positively impacting the lives around her.
As Sister Dulce’s life shows, when a culture’s manners are missing or in a mess, generosity can play an essential role to affirm human dignity and bring social healing. Problems will not be solved by politics, but by changes in the individual hearts of human beings. Flowing from an affirmation of the inviolable dignity of the person, and resounding in acts of love, person-to-person generosity is more powerful than the most well-organized but loveless system. Americans’ differing visions of man may be a knotted web of threads, but an unraveling of this knot can begin through those who respond to our national suffering with respect, civility, and personal generosity. Generosity unites, and leads to a shared common vision, to a rekindling of hope and desire for the future.
Despite the desperado appeal of libertarianism and the bravado appeal of demonstrations, we are called ontologically to communion and the common good, and public manners is an essential part of that. In the wake of recent national protests, we must revisit our response to the divisions among us. The challenge that these splinters demand is a response of heroic generosity, a response like that chosen by modern warriors like Sister Irma Dulce, among others. At the end of the day, only the power of authentic generosity will heal and transform our splintered society, opening hearts to relearn the dignity of others and the necessity of social manners.