Courtesy is Complicated

"If I ever shoot you, you'll be awake, you'll be facing me; and you'll be armed."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?

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1 Response to “Courtesy is Complicated”


  1. 1 kitwhitfield 12/03/2013 at 3:20 pm

    Waving hello…

    In terms of blogging – well, I think Coates has an excellent point for starters when he says that the banhammer has to be present. Or more broadly – I don’t think courtesy functions in a consequence-free environment.

    People aren’t naturally courteous. I’m raising a two-year-old, and like everybody he was very much born without manners. After ‘Good boy!’, ‘What do you say?’ is probably the sentence I say most often during any given day, and the answer, ‘Please’, had to be learned by the simple cause-and-effect repetition of the principle that unless you say ‘please’, you don’t get the thing you asked for. No ‘please’, no raisins, even if it I have to wait half an hour to hear it. What’s emerging now, though, is a refinement on the principle: the reward isn’t just getting whatever he asked for, but the approval that comes with it. Negative reinforcement taught him to say ‘Please’, but a positive response taught him to say ‘Thank you Mummy’ – thanking me when he already has the thing he asked for, but still wants the reward of a kiss and a smile. He’s learning, gradually, to see social connection or disconnection as the real system of punishment and reward.

    The Internet, though, allows one to disconnect one’s identity from one’s online persona, and thus to feel that the punishment of disapproval is directed painlessly towards one’s persona and not one’s ‘real self’. The person disapproving of you probably does disapprove of your real self, but the separation allows you to dodge it in your own mind, where the rewards and punishments take place. Banning is the only option there, at least to date.

    (Which is one reason why I’m deeply cynical about anonymising services. Their defence is that they protect the identity of the oppressed, but they’re far more popular with fraudsters and bullies.)

    In effect, the Internet allows everyone a degree of ‘white privilege’, in that everyone can, given some precautions in their own favour, allocate to themselves the freedom from consequence of a man above the law. This does not always bring out the best in them.

    The other thing about courtesy, though, is that it requires a degree of health to apply it appropriately. Have you ever gotten into an argument with someone with severe emotional damage – the kind of early-childhood, irreparable trauma that drives them into a permanent state of semi-fantasy because their first brush with reality was too painful to try again? People like that may understand the concept of courtesy, but only in theory, because to respect someone you have to be able to perceive them clearly and if you’re too damaged you can’t. It’s a stereotype, to be sure, but emotionally messed-up people are often over-represented on the Internet because they find social interaction in real life too difficult and go online instead – and as a result, can be nominally ‘courteous’ and relentlessly aggressive at the same time. (Yes, I’ve been burned by those people too.)

    Courtesy doesn’t work in those situations because it is, in effect, a higher-order form of social interaction. My kid had to learn a massive amount of human contact and physical reality before he was in any way ready to take on the complicated concept of manners, and if I’d been mean to him during that time instead of caring for him properly, the word ‘manners’ wouldn’t mean respect, consideration or etiquette; it’d mean, at best, appeasement or protection.

    Not unlike chivalry, really: manners employed not to connect with people in a safe community but to navigate a dangerous and frightening environment. If you have to learn that kind of chivalry before you get the chance to learn healthy manners, you’re never going to be able to manage manners in a healthy way – or at least, not unless you do some major, major work on yourself. The Internet has a lot of people for whom manners can never really be mutual because their first experiences of danger were at a time when they were absolutely vulnerable, and they’ve never gotten past it.

    Traumatised people aren’t the only problem in society, of course – inconsiderate people are often people who have too little fear of consequence rather than too much – but breaking cycles of abuse, both familial and societal, seems like the enormous first step.

    And till then, we have the banhammer for the impossible cases. And even then, it doesn’t stop some people from giving up blogging in sheer exhaustion.


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