THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM
Politeness should not be deemed the preserve of petty minded people but the means to confer dignity and equality on all. The digital world has some catching up to do on this count.
There are some stories in life which are so deliciously dark and comical that you wonder if they have been made up. The case of Carolyn Bourne, whose withering criticism of her prospective step daughter in law made global headlines in July 2011 has sparked intense debate over the nature of good manners in modern society.
It is high time someone explained to you about good manners….When a guest in another’s house, you do not declare what you will or will not eat….You do not lie in bed until late morning in households that rise early….No-one gets married in a castle unless they own it.
And so it went on.
Some suspect a deceit has been perpetrated by this Bourne ultimatum because her stepson is setting up business as a wedding planner. If so, then Mrs. Bourne’s email could be seen as one of the great sacrificial acts of the snooty middle classes, for her reputation has been trashed and this may be the only thing she is remembered for publicly.
This is the kind of issue where people instinctively take sides. Some think she has drawn a line in the parlour room, opposing the self-absorbed and materialistic assumptions of a younger generation. Others are aghast at the hypocrisy of such rudeness being used to traduce bad manners. The viral nature of this debate may reflect an unspoken undercurrent: that the subtle way we conduct ourselves socially is changing and that there is no longer any commonly agreed etiquette on how we relate to those we do not know well. Families joined by marriage in this sense represent a large seismic fault in British life.
Good manners are too easily mocked as the uptight preoccupation of petty minded people. The slight graces of common life, layer by layer, build up a common life which confers equality and dignity on all. It is especially important to show politeness to those who may be deprived of such treatment. Many people are invisible in public, including those who serve in restaurants, cafes and shops. The tendency of some customers to issue graceless instructions to those who serve them, without gratitude or eye contact, has coarsened the public realm. While Carolyn Bourne’s missive suggests a social hierarchy which should be respected upwards, the tenor of Jesus’ parables and Mary’s worship turns our assumptions on their heads: the last shall be first and the poor and humble shall be lifted up. Those who craft this in their small acts of mercy create a montage of the world to come.
Both sides in this modern morality tale could be said to have failed in a new challenge to manners: how we shape the digital world to build up our common life. Mrs. Bourne expressed her anger through the impersonal and uncourageous medium of email. It is harder, but fairer, to tell an unpalatable truth to someone’s face. People can interpret your emotion and respond accordingly. Verbal conversation flows quickly and may resolve tension much faster than an argument conducted in slow motion through an inbox, where you shudder to open an email you know will hurt you. Face to face communication may still prove explosive, but it is a more reliable way to resolve issues than a coldly worded email which corrodes the soul like a computer virus.
Those who took the side of Heidi Withers, the much maligned slacker of a step-daughter-in-law-to-be may not have stopped to reflect on the ethics of passing on this email to others. Gossip has always been damaging, but the capacity we now have to spread it across the world with the click of a mouse should make us hesitate to do so. Some sins in life are better left unshared. The new media have empowered us with a perverse form of Judgment Day, where what we speak in private is shouted from the rooftops. This is God’s sobering prerogative, and our willingness to usurp his position this way may be one of the less commented upon blasphemies of the modern age.
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