Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Politeness

Boston Unitarian is reading "Old World, New World" by Kathleen Burk, a massive study of the relationship between "Great Britain and America From the Beginning." Bristling with information and insight, I was struck just now by this passage on politeness as it emerged in the 18th century:

"...The concept of politeness, of a polite society, was increasingly important in Great Britain...The term polite had a more substantive meaning than today's use of it to mean manners or etiquette: it meant not using violence and the sword to deal with opposition, nor even sharp command or aggressive argument, but persuasion; it meant a lack of bigotry in religion or politics; it meant depending on reason and reflection... It was a means of uplifting society, of separating it from barbarity, of polishing rude manners."

The all too brief era of the Boston Unitarians was, in some ways, the culmination and the last gasp of this (always minority) view of politeness in America. The transcendentalists would seek to usher in a self-consciously American literature and the Jacksonians would foster a democratic celebration of decidedly un-polite virtues. For better and for worse (mainly the latter), the admittedly largely elite concept of politeness would retreat-and the flight goes on to the point that even the more superficial view of politeness as "manners and etiquette" (especially in public discourse) is a fond memory. Politeness is dead. Long live politeness.

Blessings

4 comments:

Robin Edgar said...

Well said Boston Unitarian.

Politeness definitely is dead in the U*U World. Long live politeness in the U*U World, assuming that it is ever resurrected that is. . .

PeaceBang said...

Interesting stuff, especially the conflation of politeness, or the ability to be polite, with rationality and reason -- two qualities decidedly associated with the masculine gender in that century. I wonder what a vibrant 21st century politeness would look like? Or would "civility" be a better name for it? I actually like "decency," myself... I think this would be a very interesting larger conversation within the movement, especially in conjunction with power, justice and inclusion. I suspect we'd make a jolly mess of it, frankly!

boston unitarian said...

Thank you PeaceBang. Gender along with class and much else is deeply tied up with 18th and 19th century concepts of politeness. I, too, wonder much about what form or framework can exist for politeness, civility, decency in our decidedly different times.
I suspect that some of the impulse for "political correctness" comes from a deep-down desire for politeness and that politeness in the hands of the larger movement would look like a set of rules for public discourse, the effectiveness of which I have my doubts (the fight over the rules themselves would probably not be very polite!)
Perhaps politness must be tied to disinterestedness (Channing's favorite virtue)or maybe must be an outward expression of the love of God...
I know that I myself often fall short but try to keep the vision before me.
Thanks again, Peacebang

boston unitarian said...

Thank you for your comment M. Edgar, but to clarify, I was hardly restricting the current lack of politeness to Unitarian Universalism. In fact, it is a virtue one would be hard pressed to find even among critics of the UU movement...
Finally, the Unitarians with which I have the deepest relationship, the people in the congregation for which I am honored to work, are powerful models of politeness for me and I am grateful for, and moved by, their example. Blessings