Manners and “Culture”

More than 200 years ago, Edmund Burke made the following observation:

“Manners are of more importance than laws. Upon them, in a great measure, the laws depend. The law touches us but here and there, and now and then. Manners are
what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us… They give their whole form and color to our lives. According to their quality, they aid morals, they supply them, or they totally destroy them.”

Admittedly, the law touches each of us a great deal more now than in Burke’s time, but the essential truth of his observation remains, simply because law cannot encompass everything in social interaction, business practices, government, and personal life – and when it tries, it fails on some and often many levels, even in the most authoritarian states.

All functioning societies have a shared culture, or at times, more than one culture, each shared by a significant fraction of the population, and each culture embodies a standard of manners. Much of what has been historically manifested in the operation of the government of the United States was never codified into law. It was based on manners and custom. Losing candidates accepted their loss, sometimes grudgingly, but they accepted it. Except for Andrew Jackson, Presidents generally accepted Supreme Court rulings they didn’t like, as did Congress.

All this was based on a mannered acceptance of authority.

Then came the 1960s and 1970s and what amounted to a combination of an assault on manners as phony and hypocritical, the Civil Rights movement, which was a slow-burning explosion against the cultural, legal, and long-standing physical repression of black Americans, and the feminist movement, another slow-burning explosion against thousands of years of male dominance. Over the years that followed, these led to significant but delayed changes in the legal system.

But what revolutionaries and reformers have too often failed to understand is that while laws can, immediately after enactment and enforcement, require different requirements of behavior and conduct, when such laws are enacted, they’re often in conflict with cultural beliefs and behavior. And cultural beliefs and manners are highly resistant to change, particularly when those in power have a vested interest in resisting change.

We’ve seen this around the world in often futile attempts to change social structures and cultures into societies that are more “democratic” and egalitarian.

Yet we’ve failed to notice that we have the same problem here in the United States. We’ve also failed to notice that since the European invasion of North America [a phrase studiously avoided by almost all politicians and historians], the forms and control of culture, business, political and governing structures have been and continue to be dominated by white males, but with legal changes over the last generation or so that complete dominance is no longer assured.

And because so much of the American political and social system has been based on cultural acceptance, when the impact of profound legal changes has truly begun to change the political, social, and economic power structure of the United States, those believing themselves to be disadvantaged by those changes, and who feel they’re the ones being discriminated against by their relative loss of power and influence, have effectively decided to reject the traditional mannered acceptance of popular political change, since it no longer benefits them. Given that, it appears, unfortunately, that more unrest and violence are likely.

6 thoughts on “Manners and “Culture””

  1. MRE says:

    One of the things this suggests to me is that a lot of the social and political institutions that have led to successful democracies and capitalism may have a lot narrower conditions for success than I imagined. Economists and political scientists constantly wonder why our institutions have trouble being successfully exported to Africa or Eastern Europe, but if governing minorities are able to foment a coup in the US, what chance do these other countries have with long-entrenched interest groups?

    The older I get, the more I believe the argument that the US benefited from a Three Stooges effect, where no great power was able to conquer them outright and reassert control because of conflicts occurring in different theaters around the world. American exceptionalism seems to have been conflated with benign neglect by empires busy elsewhere.

    Nowadays, the domestic political situation no longer seems to be benefiting from that kind of serendipity. Today our elites are attempting to oppress us just like everyone else, snatching the franchise out from beneath our noses with barely a hiccup in state legislatures. I wonder how much this has to do with the dangerous rigidity of presidential institutions? Would this have been a problem if we’d gone with a parliamentary system? Certainly Trump would have never survived for four years!

    1. Tom says:

      We used to have the UK as a working example of the parliamentary system. For at least the last 20 plus years they have done their best to follow the US lead and so we have their Brexit view of Imperial memory.

      This cultural problem is world-wide and it does have to do with human unwillingness to at least be manneredly toward each other, no matter what we really think of each other. Instead we are being “honest” as we “plug” each other out of pettiness.

      Inevitably this should lead to an expansion of our supply line “chaos”, the loss of “workers” and a nose-dive in the quality of our lives. Then, when we all have to work to get what we need (rather than just what we want), we may once again start to appreciate one another. That should result in return of cooperative culture.

      The modern term being – hit the reset button (that will not work if there is no electricity!). True: I do not have a better solution. Perhaps “COUNCILOR” will supply one. In time?

      1. Tom says:

        A deserved reminder about nihilism for me.

        https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20220113-the-sci-fi-genre-offering-radical-hope-for-living-better

        Of course, we LEM fans know all about “hopepunk” or “rebalancing”.

  2. Grey says:

    Thank you for articulating this; it’s something that I have been struggling to put together coherently. Certainly we are now seeing how much of the functionality of the United States depended on handshakes and following implicit rules.

    I agree with you that we may be in for some stormy times. The circumstances are remarkably similar to the start of the Civil War: the southern states were no longer able to maintain dominance through being the popular culture, followed by trying and failing to maintain power through rigging the vote. When they ran out of options for preserving their economies based on human slavery, they rebelled.

  3. adriandominic says:

    One of the problems of losing manners is that it makes conflicts more likely to happen.

    I am happy to be corrected on the history, but in the 1850s my understanding is that the arguments were about the expansion of slavery to new states. Lincoln was chosen as the candidate in part because he was seen as more moderate on the issue than Seward.

    Perhaps the south was right in thinking that civil war was inevitable and better then than twenty years later, but the ruder the discourse is the more difficult it is to believe that there is a peaceful option.

    The 1914 world war in part happened because the then leaders of two or possibly three major powers thought that war was inevitable and that they had a window of opportunity to win if it happened then.

    1. Grey says:

      I think you have the right of it with the inevitability understanding. Slavery was facing both economic and political extinction if it the south remained within the union. Slavery not extending to the new territories was but one part of it.

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