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Let us all show some manners

Smithtown residents rallied against masks in schools outside

Smithtown residents rallied against masks in schools outside the administrative headquarters of the Smithtown Central School District on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021. They also signed petitions urging Gov. Hochul to rescind all mask mandates for schools.. Credit: John Roca

Callously fired and preparing to storm out of the highflying management company he helped build, Jerry Maguire reminded the co-workers witnessing his downfall, "There is such a thing as manners!"

There is indeed. In between what’s banned by law and what is always allowed lies the enormous range of behavioral discretion that the British judge and organizer of his nation’s munitions during the First World War, Lord Moulton, called "manners."

In a speech given to the London Authors’ Club in 1924, Moulton defined manners as "obedience to the unenforceable," and it’s the increasing lack of such manners among Americans that's driving this nation into a tailspin.

The three spheres Moulton laid out were:

  • Positive Law: those dictates which must be obeyed. You can’t murder people or steal their stuff.
  • Absolute Freedom: those behaviors that cannot be mandated in any way. We can’t be made to watch "Ted Lasso" and internalize its message, or listen to the Black Pumas, or eat Nutella. Everything would be better if we did. But no one can make us.
  • Manners: everything else.

What Moulton saw then, as we do in the United States today, was traditional manners failing, and demands exploding for both more legal restrictions and more legal freedoms.

We need laws when manners fail to keep society civil, safe and peaceful. Freedom is demanded when laws constrain us too much.

That brings us to vaccines and mask behaviors and battles, fights over politics and educational policy, how we drive and handle our shopping carts in grocery stores (and parking lots!), and many other disputes.

At the heart of the most ferociously political opposition to masks and vaccines is that traditional American ethos: "You’re not gonna tell me what to do!" A minuscule percentage of Americans have a medical reason not to vaccinate, and an even smaller number have trouble masking. A truly tiny number may see this vaccine as a religious issue, though no large religions do.

But it’s the ill-mannered demand for absolute freedom coming from a much larger group — who "don’t like the masks" or "don’t know what’s in the vaccine" — that's forcing governments to put masks and vaccines into the realm of positive law, when good manners should have been enough.

Today we have the freedom to publicly address school boards during meetings, but we are expected to be reasonably polite and courteous. Increasingly, on Long Island, the trend had been toward people screaming at board members about masks, vaccinations, and the imaginary educational monster under Long Island’s bed, Critical Race Theory.

Manners are failing. How long before districts restrict who can address them? (Locals only? Parents only? Written comments only?) How long before bad manners of a few lead to laws restricting us all?

You want to be free? Be responsible. Be good.

Care about other people's health, needs and fears. Speak and behave kindly. Don’t present mild inconvenience as a devastating disaster.

Care about people as much after 573,000 COVID-19 patients died in the United States in the past 12 months as we did at the depths of polio in the 1950s, when just 3,000 children died of the disease annually.

Wear a mask, get a vaccine, or at least be polite in debating it. Return the grocery cart. Let the other driver merge in.

The only proper way to keep politicians from yielding to what Moulton called "the lust of governing" is by properly governing our own behavior.

So let's have some manners.

Columnist Lane Filler's opinions are his own.

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