Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic is one of the best writers I read. He has a talent for illustration and a skill with presenting complex issues in effective plain language. His most recent piece is about the conflict between courtesy and entitlement; how to move in a world the considerate have to share with those who feel the right to trample. TNC grew up in West Baltimore, and as an articulate and passionate escapee from the crab bucket he writes with power about race politics in America. The self-entitled (or as he rightly calls them, assholes) are, in our culture, probably male. They may be wealthy and arrogant or poor and shameless. But they are very likely to be white.
My recent discussion with Kit Whitfield about the Four Horsemen of anti-theism included a wide-ranging consideration of courtesy on the internet, or it’s lack. I came up via Usenet, and have observed the ways in which a long-standing culture of differentiation between signal (conversations conducted courteously and within fairly well-understood standards of evidence and behaviour) and noise (idiots, AOL users and trolls) has broken down in the blogging era. The people in CiF and Daily Mail comment threads are often not brave enough to act entitled in real life, so they spew that aggression from behind their keyboards. In effect, the internet has given one category of assholes the opportunity to enjoy discourtesy without getting punched in the nose.
In a footnote, TNC hits a big nail squarely on the head:
Every once in a while we’ll be at a bar and someone (they are invariably white*) will stumble over drunkenly and decide that we should be engaged in conversation with them.
*I am pretty sure this is because of how violence influences black communities. There’s a whole choreography (especially among black men) around avoiding it. It’s fairly easy to see and broadcast. If you’ve been acculturated to people being shot/stabbed/beat up over minor shit, you tend to be a little more careful in your interactions. You never know who you’re talking to. And if you are black person of a certain age, you are intensely aware of that.
I was recently reading the Metro and read a US poplet I’d never heard of saying she liked British men; less chivalrous than their American counterparts but more interesting. My first thought was that this word probably doesn’t mean what she thinks it means. Chivalry involved a whole bunch of different things, but is commonly used today to refer to just one aspect; elaborate courtesy rituals governing the actions of men towards women and towards one another. Now, she’s right; there is a very strong culture of courtesy in some parts of the US. One reason Mal Reynolds of Firefly is so popular is that his character is an archetype of cowboy courtesy, a trope of the Appalachians and the Midwest that is one of the finest things in their cultural tradition.
What is often ignored about chivalry, and its concomitant elaborate courtesies, is that it was effectively a desperation move in a society tearing itself apart through systemic violence, to curb the more wasteful expressions of wrath and pride in its professional warrior caste. The same forces are at work in the ritualised respect and social order of Imperial China or Tokugawan Japan. Formality in society falls in proportion to the liklihood of lethal violence. Cowboy country in America is decades closer to genuinely endemic violence than most of the rest of the country, and retains the vestiges of that courtesy which keeps people alive.
The corner is a world of status conflict that would be entirely recognisable to a Despenser-era baron. Fight to gain (man up): fight to hold (represent); defend your name (keep your cred). And while the rituals are completely different in form and poetry, they are identical in function. I was often struck, while watching The Wire and Treme, by the skill with which David Simon wove motifs and sometimes images from Marlowe and Shakespeare and Dickens into his street tragedies, but it works because the social needs are so similar, and the kinds of men and women they produce. Mistress Quickly would recognise Khandi Alexander’s ghetto mom and over-worked barkeep as kindred spirits across time. Half of Dickens’ urchins can be seen reflected in man-child Antoine Baptiste, and Harry Hotspur would have well understood what drove Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell.
I don’t have an answer. I suspect Ta-Nehisi Coates doesn’t either. And althought they might think they do, the social conservatives don’t have an answer, nor do the libertarians. For an historian, the link between the strength of social courtesy conventions and the immanence of violence is unavoidable. How do we build a social order in which courtesy is sought for its power as a gift of respect, rather than its utility as an armour against the brutality of pride?