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.