The things you learn, or don’t

I came across this article by chance. I’m an online subscriber to the NYT, and I spend a lot of time reading their stuff, but I hadn’t been aware of this piece until I read a comment about it on Facebook.

Strange, the comment was very negative. The commenter was very worked up by the article, thinking it disrespectful and inappropriate. People getting worked up on social media is no news, so I was prepared to skip over it until I read some of the comments responding to her. They were bemused and articulate, and I was intrigued.

There’s a lot in this article I agree with – in fact, I can’t think of anything to take issue with. The writer touches upon themes I have written about myself, and feel strongly about. He references his father as a role-model and guide when it comes to respect and gentlemanly behaviour, and ponders if in the years intervening that guiding principle of conduct and behaviour has gone from life.

My father was not like the writer’s father, but I absorbed key lessons from both my parents and grandparents. It’s often said today that I am well mannered. I’m even called a gentleman occasionally. It’s not anything conscious, I simply act in a way that became second nature to me many years ago – with respect and grace. I wouldn’t want to be any other way.

That attitude informs much of my behaviour. I’m a strong character, and sometimes quite forthright, but generally, it’s couched within respectful guidelines. The very thought of preying on the vulnerable, of exploiting my strength or authority for personal gain or pleasure is anathema to me. I would be deeply ashamed at the very hint of having done so. This is not how I was born, it was how I was made.

I wonder, pretty much as the writer does, if we are being made differently now. Like many others, I’m prone to believe it’s a generational thing, but that’s too simplistic. I believe that kids today are probably getting the same life education as I did. Still, clearly, there are many of my generation, and indeed throughout every era, who have acted counter to gentlemanly principles.

I grew up to respect my elders, to defer as appropriate to other opinions, to be courteous, well-mannered and thankful. I grew to appreciate the different backgrounds and outlooks of people, founded in my childhood education, and broadened by life experience. If I didn’t know already, I appreciated how people should be treated, particularly those less fortunate, and women – for whom I had an early and enduring fondness. I’m sure there have been frequent occasions I have erred, felt occasional regret, but for the most part, I have been guided by the instincts I gained by education.

That education is not available to all, and perhaps less now than before. That’s no excuse, though. People should know what is inappropriate, even if they have not had the benefit of that education. I’m convinced that in our heart, we know when we do wrong, even if we won’t face it. That’s part of the education though too, facing it – and taking responsibility.

These are difficult times, not only because of the uncertainty and unrest around the world. We have lost faith and belief (in a spiritual, not religious sense), substance has been subsumed by sensation, knowledge by fake news, insight by entertainment. The boundaries have shifted, lines blurred, and sensation dulled.

We have always had in us the urge to transgress, but those of us luckier had that trained out of us over time. Those lessons are rare now, and examples fewer. In an age of loosely defined principle, one domino tips over the next, and it spreads from there.

Fortunately, it has now tipped over into a critical phase. The pendulum reached its apogee, and finally, it was said, this is enough. Those women who have stood up can make the change society needs. We can learn again, the hard way, but hopefully for keeps.

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