Charity will help tame our ‘Age of Ugliness’

Popular historians often append labels to past eras: The 18th Century, for example, is variously known as the Age of Reason and the Age of Revolution, while the early 19th Century was approvingly dubbed the Age of Elegance.

On such precedents, one might reasonably call the early 21st Century ‘the Age of Ugliness’—and by no means solely because of the ugly tenor of the current presidential election campaign. The coarse and abusive rhetoric on display is simply a symptom of a far more virulent disease.

Why should our language be restrained when restraints have been abandoned in countless other spheres of our existence?

Many people, for example, habitually venture out in public in the sort of clothing their ancestors would have reserved for the bedroom, the beach, the bath, or the debtors’ prison.

Manners are equally deplorable, both at table and in the way in which people treat each other. Good manners, however, are not simply an option—an affectation of more leisurely eras. Our ancestors regarded good manners as an essential. In fact, they rightly regarded them as the lubricant that enabled society to function without friction.

Today’s unmannerliness has not been without consequences. An absence of manners is responsible for a wide range of social ills—from the violence that stalks our city streets to the general absence of civil discourse both in public and private life.

Is schoolyard violence entirely astounding when many children do not know how to apologise gracefully for inadvertently giving offence?

Is the divorce rate really so astonishing in an age when the traditional small courtesies between the sexes are dismissed as ‘demeaning’ or even ‘harassment’?

Is corruption both in public and commercial life so surprising in an age of rampant narcissism and self-absorption—an age where so many people regard their fellow men either as competitors to be beaten or rubes to be exploited?

It is difficult to perceive the benefits that have accrued from our rejection of our ancestors’ standards of behaviour.

Some might argue society is more ‘open’, but that’s quite untrue. Far from being more open, society is becoming increasingly closed.

The devastating decline in manners, for instance, makes it difficult to mingle people of different political, religious, or social persuasions without the affair degenerating into some sort of Jihad.

By contrast, our grandparents and parents rubbed shoulders comfortably with a much broader social spectrum—and their lives were infinitely the richer because of it.

They were able to do so because they instinctively understood something we have forgotten: It is that some subjects are quite inappropriate for dinner table discussion—and politics, religion, and sexual proclivities top the list of taboos.

To enjoy somebody’s company, it is not necessary to flip the same voting lever, sit in the same pew, or share the same tastes. Indeed, socialisation solely with those with whom one sees eye-to-eye on all things makes for intolerable boredom.

dinner partyWhen Charlotte and I were young—admittedly more years ago than either of us would care to remember—it was unthinkable to throw a ‘monochrome’ dinner party—a gathering at which everyone shared the same religious, political, and social opinions. Folks would simply have found it too darned tedious.

Instead, we cheerfully mixed atheists and agnostics alongside Buddhists, Hindus, and Christians, and paired protestants and catholics, and all in a great mélange with conservatives, socialists, communists, and anarcho-syndicalists. And what a marvellously enjoyable, not to say stimulating, time we had.

But in order to get to know others well enough to enjoy their company, it is important to avoid immediate sources of dissension.

This doesn’t mean that discussion of politics, religion, and even sexual mores were utterly forbidden, but it did mean that conversationalists had to treat each other with kindness and respect.

Good manners, you see, require us to accept that folks who disagree with us are neither necessarily knaves or idiots.

Good manners do not require us to tolerate truly evil ideas and genuinely bad behaviour, but they do require a sense of discretion and the exercise of that most Christian of virtues: Charity.

‘Charity begins at home,’ you might say? And how right you are! If we were to take a more charitable view of the shortcomings of those around us, maybe they would be encouraged to be more charitable towards other people.

And who knows where that might lead? The idea may even catch on with our politicians. GPH✠

1 comment to Charity will help tame our ‘Age of Ugliness’

  • The Reverend Peter Hawkins

    Manners vary greatly, and it is important not to assume that those one is accustomed to, are those of the new society in which one lives. I have learnt how to live as a middle class and then upper class Englishman, as a Bengali Bodri lok, and now as a Frenchman. I make no judgement about which is better, but have always enjoyed the most exotic most.