The world in which we live in is becoming less and less formal as each decade proceeds. The fact that I did not have to wear a business suit to work today for example, despite being a member of the white-collar world, is something which my grandfather’s generation would have found unthinkable. Yet even though for the most part Western society has become much more familiar and informal than previously, there are still vestiges of formality which remain in practice of which we should take note, and which I see as a good thing. At the same time we also have to be careful not to put a too-rosy glow on the past. Human society always needs to continue to try to do better, if indeed it is to continue at all.
Yesterday afternoon I was in court for some preliminary matters involving a case coming up for trial, and during the course of the meeting, the judge had to come in and out of the courtroom several times. As is customary, the other attorney and I stood and sat when she entered or left the room, or when she addressed us, or when we had to address her. While this may sound a bit odd, even though I have conformed to this practice before a judge many times, there was something about it yesterday which particularly struck me, and touched my heart a bit. Keep in mind that there is no law which mandates that we show this level of deference to the judge, and we are not doing it because of who she herself is, but rather out of respect for the law, which is what she represents.
There is something patently civilized in recognizing the fact that another is worthy of a physical demonstration of respect, which unfortunately has been watered down in contemporary society. The feminist movement for example, left us in a quandary as to whether we should pull out a chair or hold a door open for a lady. And an increasing level of rude behavior and bad manners across the political spectrum appears to be de rigueur these days not only within the government, but also when government officials or foreign dignitaries are visiting a particular place. In some cases it seems that new and social media are responsible for promoting a kind of public boorishness which has, frankly, little or nothing to do with exercising personal freedom, and everything to do with crass selfishness.
However this is not to say that in the past, everyone loved their neighbor as themselves and was generally well-behaved. For example, if you are a fellow student of history you no doubt find it ironic, as I do, that people today complain about a lack of decorum in Congress. The truth is that compared to how things used to be, shouting out “You lie!”, or wearing a hoodie on the floor of the House, is nothing compared to what some of the Founding Fathers got up to.
Congressman Matthew Lyon holds the dubious distinction of being the first member of the House of Representatives – though certainly not the last – to have ethics charges brought against him. In the winter of 1798, he spit in the face of Congressman Roger Griswold, after Griswold had called him a scoundrel and referred to his dismissal from service during the Revolutionary War for cowardice, while they were in session. Griswold later attempted to beat the tar out of Lyon with his cane on the floor of the House, and Lyon defended himself with a pair of tongs he grabbed from a fireplace in the chamber. However before my European readers begin to think that this sort of behavior is an American one, allow me to point out that American politicians are not the only persons who have sometimes lost their sense of office and dignity during the course of history.
Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford, served as 1st Lord of the Treasury – in effect, as Prime Minister – to Queen Anne toward the end of her reign. Unfortunately, he did not seem to be able to rise to the dignity of his office, nor show the proper deference due to the monarch. During a meeting of her Privy Council on July 27, 1714, we are told that the Queen complained that Lord Oxford had “neglected all business; that he was very seldom to be understood; that when he did explain himself she could not depend upon the truth of what he said; that he never came to her at the time she appointed; that he often came drunk; lastly, to crown all, that he behaved himself towards her with bad manners, indecency, and disrespect.”
Matters then came to a head when Lord Oxford and the Queen got into what an eyewitness described as a “personal altercation”, which went on and on until 2 o’clock in the morning. At the end of what must have been an absolutely fascinating, if incredibly uncomfortable, battle of wills, the Queen had had enough. She took back the White Staff, a kind of ceremonial mace which was the emblem of office traditionally given to her 1st Minister, and gave it to Lord Bolingbroke, dismissing Lord Oxford from her service. The Queen died several days later and her successor, King George I, had Lord Oxford impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors, and imprisoned in The Tower of London for several years.
Civilization only works when its members agree that there are situations in which it is better to put others ahead of ourselves, whether because of the power they hold, or their age/infirmity, or their role in our society, and so on. If there is no such deference, then it is an every-man-for-himself situation, and you eventually end up with utter chaos. Look at what happened in places like Russia or Spain last century, when anarchy led to protracted Civil War, and you will find it not a pretty picture to be “liberated” from rules of decent behavior.
Of course, those who rail against conventions and hierarchies as somehow enslaving human beings and preventing freedom ought to consider the alternative: a world in which anyone can rob from you or physically abuse you, and against which actions you would have no recourse, unless you were physically capable of fending them off. No rational person wants to live for any extended period of time in a society as strictly regimented as North Korea, I would wager, but on the other hand no rational person would want to live in the middle of a permanent war zone, either. We are flawed creatures, with a spark of divinity veiled by an inherent tendency of all fallen creation to look out for itself, first. This often leads to our treating others poorly, whether out of deliberate malice or out of careless disregard.
The rules which we have put in place with respect to how we behave in the course of our interactions are there to counteract our natural tendency to behave selfishly and badly toward one another. Standing up when the judge comes into the room, or politely shaking hands with the President of the United States – even if you virulently disagree with his policies – is a way of demonstrating that you believe civilized behavior is not just an end unto itself: it is a means for keeping our civilization going.
All from the most highly placed to the most lowly find themselves in situations where they must defer to someone else in this way. Even the Pope washes the feet of the faithful on Holy Thursday, just as you must wash your hands before appearing at someone else’s dinner table. While we should avoid unnecessarily obsequious behavior, perhaps next time you find yourself interacting with another, it is worth considering whether you are behaving in a way which keeps our culture a civilized one, or whether you are chipping further away at its foundations.