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Misbehaving makes history, not manners

cameron cravings

I would not have thought that a Daily Mail article about women’s Tinder profiles was evidence that “the entire modern world equates being well-behaved with being sheepishly reticent,” but this is the point Lizzie Bond makes in her column, “The case for well-behaved women (and men).” She argues that contrary to popular belief, good manners are not “arbitrary and antiquated—and even oppressive—standards of behavior,” but a path to virtuousness.

Calling “politeness” a “well-behaved way of interacting with one’s fellow man” and a “conditioning for a soul ordered in virtue” ignores the fact that being polite does not look the same for everyone. Women, people of color, queer people, and many other marginalized groups are expected to be courteous and polite at all times. Held to a much higher standard, when they fall short, the consequences can be life-altering.

A 2015 paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that not only are black workers more heavily monitored by their employers, but “because black workers are more closely scrutinized, it increases the chance that errors—large or small—will be caught… It’s more likely that a black employee would be let go for these errors than a white one.” Not all fireable offenses are created equal.

This storyline should be familiar to us at Duke. Not long ago, Larry Moneta, then the vice president for student affairs, was offended by the lyrics of a rap song playing in Joe Van Gogh. He confronted the barista, who apologized profusely and changed the song. Moneta then complained to the executive director of dining services that the employees of Joe Van Gogh were playing music that he found “quite inappropriate for a working environment” and the employees were told to resign or be fired. Offended white man = fired black woman.

There is not enough space to list the recent instances of women (particularly women of color) being held to a higher standard of politeness than men. Suffice it to say that a man walking down the street without a smile on his face is just a man walking down the street. A woman walking down the street without a smile on her face is a target for verbal abuse and criticism. Give me a smile, sweetheart. It’s as if by simply existing she is not polite or well-behaved enough for the rest of the world.

And I am not excused from this. Last spring I had a professor that I just did not like. I went in for help with a paper and left her office hours feeling dumb and incapable and villainized her because of that interaction. I hated her class and found excuses to hate it, from her sloppy syllabus (loose-leafed! No staples in sight!) to her curt response when I greeted her in the hallway. 

My best friend, who was also in the class but actually enjoying it, asked me in the nicest way possible, "Do you dislike her because she is rude, or do you dislike her because she is not as nice as you think a woman should be?"

And of course it was the latter. She wasn't a malicious person, she just wasn't as warm and personable as I expected her to be. If a male professor had been comparatively neutral, I wouldn't have thought twice about it: he would have seemed aloof, but in an erudite, scholarly way. Without realizing it, my internal bias had turned me completely against my professor based on my subconscious expectations of her courtesy.

The standards for politeness are simply not the same for everyone. Straight, upper-class, white men (and often white women) are excused for being dismissive, brusque and outright rude when people without these privileged identities acting in the same way face serious consequences. 

So rebels, rabble-rousers and revolutionaries are impolite because they have to be. Every day, they are expected to be disproportionately well-behaved and gracious. Every day, when supervisors or coworkers or strangers on the street are permitted to belittle, dismiss and insult them, society demands that they take the high road and ignore the rudeness without returning it in kind.  

Bond’s understanding of politeness is narrow-minded and stifling. Well-behaved women (and black/brown/queer/poor/disabled people) seldom make history because they are required to be well-behaved at all times: it is not an exception, it is the rule, the expectation that structures every interaction and aspect of their lives. To be listened to in order to make a change, they have to misbehave. 

In closing, Bond argues that “to glorify defiance and vilify well-mannered-ness” is to exacerbate the divides that already plague our society. She asks, “Where are manners when our peers commit sexual assault?”

I suppose it’s impolite to rape someone, but that’s not the adjective I would choose to describe an inhumane, criminal act of physical and emotional assault with traumatic effects that will far outlive the jail sentence of the rapist, if there is a jail sentence at all.

“Where are manners when our peers incite hatred through public messages of racism and anti-Semitism?”

I suppose it’s impolite to scrawl the n-word on a sign at the Mary Lou or a swastika on the East Campus Bridge, but that’s not how I would write about these blatant acts of hatred and terrorism repeatedly taking place on our home campus.

“Where are manners when our peers...feel forced to endure the gruesome rush process, or even hazing?”

I suppose it’s impolite to haze someone, but that’s not the first word I would use to describe violent harassment that reinforces the notion that subjugating others to your physical strength and psychological bullying is not just acceptable, but encouraged.

In explaining these events as a reflection of a campus-wide lack of “manners,” Bond lowers these hateful atrocities to the offense of someone not holding the door or unapologetically leaving you on read. For obvious reasons, these two should not be placed on the same level, and yet, that is exactly what Bond does to justify her argument.

Politeness is important. Of course I want to live in a world where people hold elevators and say please and thank you; of course I want people to be kind to me, and to others, and to themselves. But progress on issues like sexual assault, hate crimes and all the other injustices that Bond names in her “case for well-behaved women” does not come from politeness.

Progress comes from misbehaving individuals.

Gretchen Wright is a Trinity senior. Her column, cameron cravings, runs on alternate Thursdays.

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