I find the spoof exceptionally funny but also–and here’s the twist–entirely wrong-headed from the first. Its target: The stuffiness of manners. Its strategy: Anachronism. Its implicit aim: To show that manners are the kinds of straitjacketed conventions that those of us living after the 60s can naturally get beyond. I don’t think so.
In her illuminating essay on Jane Austen, “Manners, Morals, and Practical Wisdom,” the philosopher Karen Stohr argues that
[t]he standard contemporary view of manners is that they are a facade, a matter of mere surface appearances. According to this view, manners can tell us little, if anything, about a person’s underlying character, which is what really matters. At best, good manners are a pleasing garnish; at worse, they can deceive us into believing that a person’s character is better than it is, as in the case of George Wickham, whose agreeable manners conceal malevolent aims. I shall argue here that while good manners are indeed pleasing, they have a moral significance that goes considerably beyond that. Good manners are central to moral life because they serve as the vehicle through which moral commitments are expressed and moral ends are accomplished. Thus, good manners in this sense are tied directly to an agent’s grasp of moral concepts. (189-90).
Take one example: Opening the door for someone while saying, “After you.” In one sense, this convention couldn’t be anymore arbitrary, and indeed it is. In another, deeper sense, though, it is a full manifestation of, indeed a presumption of, respect for another. That is to say, it is one of the everyday ways that our moral concepts get realized.
Do you agree with Stohr? Where do you stand?