Friday, December 12, 2008

1965 or 2008?

Awhile ago, the CH started asking his students a question about the world they'd prefer to live in. He asked his students if they would prefer to live in the social environment of 1965, where the roles of men and women were more clearly divided, or if they'd prefer to stick with the social situation of 2008. Unsurprisingly, most of the men chose 1965 and most of the women chose 2008. In 1965, men still operated in the world of lifetime employment while the women were at home supporting them as wives and mothers. It was a time when men were men and women were trapped in the limits society imposed upon them.

Most people feel that the world was a better place in their youth and older people often lament that people were more civilized back when. Personally, I don't have a sense that people were any better when I was younger. I think they're just obnoxious in a different way now compared to the past. I do believe there was a time which predated my birth by a fair amount of time when people were taught more rigid notions of social interaction and "manners" which discouraged them from indulging their emotions every time someone bumped into them or treated them rudely.

Some Americans have balked for quite some time at the idea of rules of manner. The main reason for this is that many such rules evolved as a means of showing deference to status in other cultures and we like to pretend we are all equals. One way to assert your equality is to not treat a person with false respect simply based on perceived status. Personally, I feel this has been a case of throwing out the baby with the bath water. Good manners are about treating others with the same level of consideration and kindness you'd like to be treated with, not showing that someone is owed some level of deference.

Growing up, I wasn't role-modeled any manners at all. Neither of my parents ever said "please" or "thank you" to me or my sister for anything, though they at times insisted that we do so. In fact, as an adult, I have never once received a word of gratitude for anything I have given or done for my parents. Every year, no matter what Christmas present I sent them, they always complained about it. If I sent coffee, it was the wrong kind. If I bought clothes, they didn't really need them or the style was lacking. If I sent candy, they really didn't want more sweets around. Eventually, I just gave up and relied on my sister's opinion that candy (I send See's) was good because my parents always ate it up and enjoyed it, even while they complained about having received it and never offered a word of gratitude.

Because I so rarely experienced good manners from my parents, and the children around me were cruel and obnoxious (as kids often are), I don't have some idealized sense that the world was a better place way back when. If I could choose between now and an era from the past, I think I'd be pretty indifferent to whatever the cultural landscape was regarding how people treated one another or the conditions we live in. Grudgingly, I'd have to say that we probably are better off now world-wide as a species than we have been for quite some time in terms of material quality of living and the potential to control health, food supply, and energy resources.

While there are a lot of problems with resource management and the environment, our ability to deal with them is much greater than ever before. Yes, people are starving and suffering all over the world in various places, but that was happening at every stage of human history. The difference now is that we are more aware of it than before. It used to be that people died from disease, war and starvation somewhere else on the globe and we had no idea what was going on. Now, we know every detail and have the technology to intervene in at least some cases. So, if I could choose any year or time to live in, I guess I'd choose now, but mainly because I can't find it in myself to idealize the past, no matter how much I'd like to be able to do so.

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