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The case for well-behaved women (and men)

notes from the girl your mom wants you to marry

Some show Duke pride: GTHC, white letters in an unequivocally Duke-blue circle. DDMF, in any way it comes. “Bull City,” tracing the figure of a Durham bull. “Anyone but Carolina.” “Forever Duke.”

Others represent wide-ranging special interests: Feel the Bern. Warren 2020. “Home” plastered across the state of your choice or the three-lettered identifier of one’s airport or ski resort of choice. “Climate change is real” and “There is no planet B.” The occasional Greek lettering or selective living group identifiers (think “Cooper” with infinity-sign o’s). Rainbow-lettered “Love is Love” and “Love Wins.” “#BlackLivesMatter” and “Black Girl Magic” and “Melanin Poppin’.”

And then, of course, there many are unabashedly feminist: “The Notorious RBG” encircling an image of, well, RBG’s face. #GirlPower or #GirlBoss. “The Future is Female” lining the knuckles of a fist ready to #ResistthePatriarchy. “My Body, My Choice” and “A Woman’s Place is in the House and the Senate.”

While the typical Duke students gloss their eyes over these all-too-common stickers as unthinkingly and automatically as they paste them on their own laptops and water bottles, one, in particular, should give us pause.

Well-behaved women seldom make history.”

Virtually no truly #empoweredwoman at Duke, it seems, can claim to boast an acceptable repertoire of #unapologetic and #woke feminist stickers without this one. And yet, as I noticed my peer’s laptop splattered with the phrase sitting across from our Oxford tutor while studying there this summer, at one of the most rule-laden, restrictive, tradition-bound and uptight places in the entire world, I couldn’t help but wince with latent unease.

Was it irony, to tacitly endorse disobedience and insurrection while at a 900-plus-year-old institution whose very existence lies in its patrons’ acquiescence to its strictures and deep-rooted conventions?

Or, was it, instead, a visceral protestation against the idea that my well-meaning peer, and now perhaps the modern world, equates being well-behaved with being sheepishly reticent, lamentably submissive, so worthless as to be forgotten, complicit and culpable in the ills that mark our history as those who committed the wrongdoing themselves?

As with so many of the conundrums I face, David Brooks helped give voice to my instinctive disquiet with the message that to behave well, to act politely and treat one’s neighbors graciously and respectfully, is to render oneself pathetic and ultimately insignificant.

While reflecting in his well-known The Road to Character on the value of self-mastery to the formation of inner righteousness that George Marshall embodied, Brooks writes:

“Marshall’s polite social manner matched his polite inner makeup. The French philosopher André Comte-Sponville argues that politeness is the prerequisite for the great virtues: ‘Morality is like a politeness of the soul, an etiquette of inner life, a code of duties.’ It is a series of practices that make you considerate of others.”

Far from arbitrary and antiquated—and even oppressive—standards of behavior, then, politeness, a well-behaved way of interacting with one’s fellow man and in the world, stands as a conditioning for a soul ordered in virtue, with an eye to both the common good and the good in human existence. 

With this in mind, our social and cultural conventions which erect the strictures of well-mannered conduct, in this way, prove neither atavistic nor haphazard, neither unjust nor repressive. Rather, they represent man’s accumulated wisdom on how to govern human behavior in such a way as to condition internal virtue. 

By unburdening human interactions from coarseness and discomfort, standards of politeness and expectations of well-behaving individuals serve ultimately to liberate and provide him or her with the space (and luxury) for moral introspection and growth while operating in civil society amongst his or her fellow man endeavoring to do the same. 

Inherent within this understanding, however, lies a deeper message which modern calls towards insurrection against “well-behaved women” and men forgo: not only do traditional expectations for good manners sculpt, at the very least, a society within which we can more securely pursue the good alongside our neighbors, but undergirding the notion of manners itself is the fundamental wisdom of the equal humanness which we share, most especially in our interactions with one another. 

To be equally made; to possess inherent and equal dignity, irrespective of worldly difference; to suffer amidst the same human fallibility and to rejoice in another’s graciousness towards you, if for nothing else than a sense of common human experience—this is the best of what it means to be well-behaved. 

Even as a woman who strives (albeit imperfectly) both to be “well-behaved” and to “make history” (especially by pushing back against regrettable behaviors that have become norms), I sympathize with the motivations to break the mold, as it were, of well-mannered social convention in a noble effort to liberate all human potential and dignity. For Harriet Tubman, in escaping her slave owner’s legal possession over her, was not well-behaved; American patriots, in revolting against the British crown’s imperial hold over them, were not well-behaved; Rosa Parks, in occupying a legally whites-only seat on the bus, was not well-behaved. These brave souls, I would argue, were right to not be well-behaved.

At the same time, however, today, to glorify defiance and vilify well-mannered-ness, is to slice deeper the already abysmal divisions which not only debilitate our society, but which fracture even our own campus. 

Where are manners when our peers commit sexual assault at a nauseatingly high rate at Duke? Where are manners when our peers incite hatred through public messages of racism and anti-Semitism? Where are manners when our peers, desperate for a sense of community, feel forced to endure the gruesome rush process, or even hazing, simply out of a desire to fit in on an otherwise socially fragmented and exclusive campus? Where are manners when our peers seek to impeach members from a student group, or to blacklist them from others?

On a campus—and in a world—so preoccupied with being #nasty, with overturning oppressive power structures, with prevailing as the loudest voice in the room, with name-calling and with exposing societal ills, even if that means storming stages, perhaps it would do us good to heed the wisdom of Brooks (and Comte-Sponville), to be “considerate of others,” to focus on cultivating the “great virtues,” even if that means appearing lackluster or conformist or meek. 

The question of virtue begs a further one: should we be more concerned with making history—with acquiring fame or even notoriety—or with being well-behaved, with conditioning the inner order of our souls with virtue? I would like to think that the two prove not mutually exclusive, but, between the two, I would choose the latter. 

I hope you would, too. 

Lizzie Bond is a Trinity junior. Her column, notes from the girl your mom wants you to marry, runs on alternate Mondays.

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