Sunday, May 6, 2012

What's in a word? Manners, obligations, and cultural decay

There's a particular Robert Heinlein quote that I've always been a fan of, always thought noted something significant. It's from his novel Friday and I've talked about it before:
But a dying culture invariably exhibits personal rudeness. Bad manners. Lack of consideration for others in minor matters. A loss of politeness, of gentle manners, is more significant than is a riot.
The novel itself involves an "artificial person"--named Friday, of a female sort, and quite sexy--who moves through a future society in her role as a military courier. It has a fair amount of Blade Runner in it--what it means to be human and such--but mostly is social commentary disguised as a novel. Friday observes what is happening in and to her society, various societies really, as do other characters in the book. And those observations seem to translate directly--generalized as they are--to our current reality. Of course, built in to all of this are Heinlein's only biases, own opinions, and he's not infallible.

Still, the above quote always struck me as just so right, that I could never imagine questioning it's truth and accuracy. And yet, that is exactly what I now find myself doing, thanks to David Graeber's latest book--Debt: The First 5,000 Years--even though I'm barely a third of the way through the volume.

Graeber is an anthropologist by trade and an anarchist by ideology, but that's no reason to ignore his book. Trust me. As one can easily glean from the title, the book is sort of a history of debt, as a concept and social institution. And in exploring that history, one of the things Graeber touches on is manners, in the form of saying things like "please" and "thank you."

Most people in the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Oceania--the "West"--will likely say that using such phraseology is simple common courtesy or politeness, that it's a simple matter of showing some respect for others, even those who are strangers. And it's on this assumption that Heinlein's quote is founded.

But as Graeber points out, the roots of these twin concepts reflect an older system of obligation that goes far beyond mere common courtesy. "Please" in English is short for "if you please." In French, the corresponding term is "merci," which derives from "mercy." What's happening deep down--when we ask someone to "please hold the door," then thank them for doing so, for instance--is the creation of an obligation, a debt if you will. The first, the "please," indicates a willingness to be in the debt of another. The second, the "thank you," is the confirmation of the debt. For "thanks" derives from "think," the idea being that saying thanks is a way of saying one will remember the action into the future.

But all of this is--in our society--something of a fiction. If I say to a friend "please pass the ketchup" at a restaurant, I'm not really asking. I'm telling, I'm ordering. For social conventions demand that my friend does indeed pass the ketchup. His failure to do so marks him as ill-mannered and impolite. In truth, this extends to strangers as well, provided the nature of the request has no significant costs associated with it. Thus, the pleasantries serve to mask the obligations of the other person, not the one saying "please" and "thank you."

In the past, when there was a more significant division of peoples by social status, when there were aristocrats or nobility on one hand and commoners or peasants on the other, these games of manners--of creating fictitious obligations--were played among the upper classes, alone. The lower classes were--to put it simply--more direct and more honest. Obligations to each other were clear (and, tangentially, this leads into the story of the moneylenders and why they are universally despised), they were--ultimately--a matter of survival.

But the rise of the middle classes changed all of this; manners trickled down through patronage, through people seeking social mobility who necessarily dealt with the upper classes. And the theoretical banishment of a landed aristocracy closed the deal, so to speak. The bourgeoisie became a kind of petty nobility, but because of the supposed equality of all peoples, their mannerisms--adapted from the aristocracy--were established as core social institutions of an egalitarian society. From top to bottom, from richest to poorest, good manners and politeness were expected as a matter of course.

But here's the rub: this--the history of the West--isn't the only road to a kind of egalitarianism (though in my view, it is the only road that is accompanied by greatly increased standards of living) in society. Thus, polite behavior and good manners--the things we put a premium on, the things we expect from everyone--are not universals, at all.

Heinlein's observations in this regard are therefore also not universal. And surprisingly, the possibility exists for a breakdown like Heinlein posits that does not reflect a "dying culture," at all.

All of that said, there is a gaping hole in Graeber's point of view--which I just touched on, above--with regard to prosperity and standards of living. Moreover, the eschewing of social institutions, of standards of behavior, for the sake of the eschewing them alone is no way to promote harmony and peace.

Which, I guess, is reflected in movements like Occupy Wall Street, wherein things seem to eventually turn towards violence and destruction, despite initial hopes and claims.

But consider all of this a teaser; I think Graeber is saying some very significant things, but I also think that in the end, the sum total of what he is saying will be--despite his own opinions--a boon for conservative ideology, in much the same way that I find the works of another anarchist anthropologist--James C. Scott--to be a similar boon.

Cheers, all.


  1. for your reading pleasure I would suggest And Then There Were None. a short sci fi novel about a planet that had been colonized long enough to be stable, they called it Gand I believe. fundamental principle FIW.

    Freedom - I Won't.

    obligations are the currency of the world. and we "discover" our lost cousins by the vehicle of the tax collector arriving.

    must be somewhat memorable, as it has stuck with me for more than 30 years. where to find it? it's "round here someplace" if you cannot get your hands on a copy, but would like to.

    grace & peace


  2. You know I never said anything about how we should eschew social institutions, manners included. I was just talking about the particular form of manners (or institutions) that we have.

    As for OWS - well, we have this need to believe that getting rid of the law will lead to violence and destruction. In fact it's not true, there are many parts of the world where police vanished, for instance, and hardly anything changed at all (Somalia is hardly a telling example, since there the state disappeared when people were _already_ in the middle of a civil war.) What happened in OWS is that the city started taking busloads of newly released prisoners from Riker's Island and dropping them off at Zuccotti park telling them there was free food and shelter there. Why? Well, partly because they just wanted to disrupt the camps, but mainly, because they desperately want people like you to think that.

    1. That sounds depressingly like something authoritarians would do...

  3. by the way, I enjoyed Friday. took me several years to get round to reading it as the cover convinced me it might be mere "pulp".

    I was wrong about the quality of the story.

  4. @Roy

    Thanks for the recommendation. Sounds like a good story. Speaking of sci-fi shorts, another interesting one, not really on this topic however, is Helbent 4 by Stephen Robinett.

  5. @David.

    You're right, you said no such thing. With that bit, I was moving into my own pov and did not mean to imply that you had suggested such a path, at all.

    As to OWS, I recognize your involvement and knowledge of the movement is far more extensive, to put it mildly, than my own. Thus, "people like me" have no business seeing things through a different prism.

    In all seriousness though, I really am enjoying your book. It's challenging and thought-provoking and I've been recommending it to people without reservation.


  6. @rob @roy: And Then There Were None, by Eric Frank Russell, 1951

    ...all on one page, here:

    Let me double or triple-down on roy's recommendation. A fun and thought-provoking read. More of a novella, only about 25k words, and a fast read.

    There was a novel in 1962, The Great Explosion, that included this story as the last section, but the story came first, and it stands well alone.

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