Lessons from the Past: Minding Manners
by Vaughn Treude
Much of the research for my steampunk novels has involved the Victorian Era in which they take place. One of the most striking differences between then and now is that era’s emphasis on manners and politeness versus our own time’s pervasive vulgarity. Today it’s fashionable to bash the Victorians as sexually repressed hypocrites, but that’s not a fair judgment. Nobody’s perfect, and no era has been Utopian, but I believe the 19th century’s obsession with manners was a value derived from a genuine respect for other people.
The 21st century has brought many amazing technological advancements, among them the internet. Yet the internet also provides the primary evidence of our civilization’s decline. On a superficial level, it may seem that we’ve become more sensitive to the needs of different kinds of people. In reality, we are more in the midst of an Inquisition than a Reformation. Real manners require that we treat people fairly, not just when they do good, but also when they make mistakes. One of the hallmarks of grace is the ability to accept a sincere apology, a virtue that’s disappearing from our society. We live in a time when one carelessly uttered (or typed) remark can destroy a person’s career and ruin their life.
On the other hand, many of the awful things people say defy all sense and logic. Yes, there are times when oversensitive people take offense about nothing, but I believe that 90 percent of present-day controversies begin with unkind words from people who should know better. If we were polite and respectful as a general rule, there would be far fewer social media blowups. Furthermore, if we always behave well toward others, it’s easier to stand our ground in the event that we’re wrongly accused.
Some may object to my romanticizing a historical period rife with so much inequality and discrimination. Yet there have always been people with compassion for their fellow human beings. Even the class-obsessed Victorians had societies for protecting children and preventing cruelty to animals. If massacres and brutality occurred in the Colonies, civilized people were outraged, and sometimes their protests made a difference.
But that was before civil rights and women’s suffrage. Surely people behave better today, right? I’m not convinced. Despite our hard-won freedoms, we’ve picked up habits of coarseness and vulgarity that make enemies of our fellow citizens and drive us all apart. It’s impossible to resolve the issues of the day when we can’t even have civil discussions. It’s become accepted to treat people who disagree with us as if they’re evil, and the corporate media makes no attempt to set a better example.
Even in our everyday lives, it seems our interactions have become coarser and less pleasant. My wife, who has spent many years working in retail, says she’s constantly amazed by how often the customers treat her and her associates with attitudes from disrespect to outright contempt. These shoppers are not teenage hooligans, but older folks, many of retirement age. So we can’t even blame this bad behavior on the younger generation.
I believe most people are good by nature, despite our mistakes and imperfections. Yet even the best of us may at times take out our frustrations on others. A far more common offense is to be cold and uncaring about the feelings of other people. Yet it doesn’t cost us anything to remember the aptly named Golden Rule. Say “please” and “thank you” and smile at people, even lowly folks like retail clerks. I see it as an investment in good karma. Even if the good behavior doesn’t come back to you directly, it makes the day more pleasant for everyone.
Vaughn Treude grew up on a farm in North Dakota. The remoteness of his home, with few children nearby, made science fiction a welcome escape. After many years in software, he realized that the discipline of engineering could be applied to writing fiction. Check out his works at steampunkdesperado.com.