Posted by: Harold Knight | 01/14/2011

Lincoln-Douglas debates, square dancing, and good manners

(Please note the page above, “My WRITING Process.” Thank you.)

A couple evenings ago I drove myself to an unfamiliar part of Dallas, a shopping plaza out in the northeast corner of the city. I was looking for a Knights of Columbus hall, which I eventually found (it was dark) with the help of a kind person at the mall. “It’s the building back there with the American flag in front.”

“Why,” Anyone Who Knows Me might ask, “were you looking for a Knights of Columbus hall at 7 PM on a cold January night?”

Anyone Who Knows Me will be amazed at my answer. “Square dance lessons.”
I wasn’t quite—almost—terrified walking into that room with about twenty strangers to learn to dance. They were expecting me (I had called the number I had received in the notice about the lessons).  Almost immediately I was on the floor, in a square, and in thirty seconds had learned to Dosado. It didn’t stop for two hours—except for a couple of cookie-and-punch breaks.  I learned fifteen steps.

Square dancers practice a formal etiquette. When the square (four couples) forms itself to begin the tip (the dance), one bows to one’s partner. At the end of the tip, one bows to one’s partner and to one’s “corner” (the woman on a man’s left, and the man on a woman’s right). Everyone joins hands, meets in the middle of the square to say “thank you,” and then each says “thank you” to every member of the square.

For this out-of-shape wanna-be-academic who lives mostly in his head the evening was unprecedented. I expected to feel uncomfortable and awkward. Neither was the case. My comfort was the direct result of the formalities of etiquette built into the evening’s activities. Formalities, I hasten to add, that are practiced over many years to become natural and spontaneous for the dancers—not disingenuous.

A couple days ago Sarah Palin infamously posted a statement on Facebook that those who have accused her of using language of violence that has helped create a climate of incivility in national political discourse (and creating a climate of violence that might have helped prompt the shootings in Tuscon) are guilty of “blood libel.” Well now. That’s a fine kettle of fish.

I was one of those “liberals” who rushed to judgment saying bellicose language of some “conservatives”(Palin’s map with Congresswoman Giffords’ district in the crosshairs of a gunsight “targeting” her for defeat, for example) helped set the stage for Jared Loughner’s Tucson shooting rampage. That’s conjecture. Loughner may simply be mentally ill. I fear that will eventually become the point of his trial—whether or not he is legally competent to be convicted of attempted assassination and murders no one doubts he committed. On March 30, 1981, John Hinckley shot President Reagan. His guilt was never in doubt. However, he was found not guilty by reason of insanity. In its outrage Congress passed laws making such a verdict much more difficult to obtain (Hinkley has been in a psychiatric hospital since he was convicted).

An important component of the communication skills students in the classes I teach is to learn to document what they write. My students are often shocked to find their grade lowered because they have not created perfect MLA format citations for their sources—titles of books and journals in italics, a period after the author’s name, the line spacing uniform, etc. This is necessary simply because those rules are etiquette. If the citation is perfect, anyone reading the writing will know exactly how to find the source(s). Period. It’s polite to help the reader know where your ideas (especially quotations) came from. Like bowing to one’s partner and corner at the end of a tip.

You may find this difficult to believe, but I am not demonizing Sarah Palin. She has made herself an obvious example. When I read her “blood libel” statement, I was horrified. The term is viciously anti-Semitic. In the 13th century

. . . the blood libel legend made its first vague appearance in an accusation of ritual murder of Christians by Jews. In 1235, thirty-four Jews were executed by the crusaders at Fulda, having been accused of killing the five sons of a miller, whose blood they then poured into sacks sealed with wax, which they burned as part of a magical rite (1).

Sarah Palin accused “liberals” and the “media” of condemning her for the kind of outrage the Medieval Jews were accused of. The idea apparently came from an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal. She  ignored, for the sake of sensationalism, obvious details: she is not a member of a persecuted minority, no one (that I’ve read) accused her of murder, and she is not the victim in this abhorrent chapter in our political life.  Ms. Palin did not explain what she meant or cite her source (either the WSJ or other sources). She simply threw a reprehensible phrase into the political discourse. It will most likely, lamentably, return.

Thomas Hobbes (1588 –1679), sometimes known as the father of British political philosophy, wrote about the social contract, that (usually tacit) agreement under which we all consent to live. Hobbes, of course, influenced John Locke and was one of the important intellectual forebears of our democracy. In De Cive, Hobbes wrote,

Reason declaring Peace to be good, it followes by the same reason, that all the necessary means to Peace be good also, and therefore that Modesty, Equity, Trust, Humanity, Mercy (which we have demonstrated be necessary to Peace) are good Manners, or habits (that is) Vertues. The Law therefore, is the means to Peace, commands also Good Manners, or the practise of Vertue: and therefore it is call’d Morall (2).

Hobbes, Johnson explains, believed manners bring peace. Hobbes meant manners in the sense of a kind of civility toward one another (like square dancers bowing to and thanking each other for the privilege of dancing together?). To Hobbes “the importance of manners is not found in the way they protect us against petty annoyance or because they embellish an otherwise dull existence. It lies in their contribution to peace.” The peaceful maintenance of the social contract. Manners are based in ethics, Johnson continues, and “. . . they are serious matters and, hence, of considerable interest to individuals who are motivated primarily by self-preservation” (3).

Perhaps our desire for “self-preservation” demands our recovering basic civility—manners—in political discourse. Sarah Palin said political discourse has never been polite. She’s wrong (read Abraham Lincoln’s or Dwight D. Eisenhower’s campaign speeches). But if she is correct, we would do well to learn a new civility.

If individuals are to put their trust in politics its first objective must be to make the world safe for the virtues, both practical and intellectual. . . the skill to grasp what is fitting in a specific, human context would seem essential. In addition, there is no reason to exclude the small virtues from the formal characteristics Hobbes thinks are common to the primary rules for peace. . . . For Hobbesian individuals who are constantly anxious about their own security the burden of living up to [the Golden Rule] does not arise from the strain it places on their rational capacity to apply it, but from their fear that others might not behave likewise (4).

Making people anxious through incivility probably will not make for peace. _____________________________
(1) Matteoni, Francesca. “The Jew, the Blood and the Body in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe.” Folklore 119.2 (2008): 182-200.
(2) Quoted in: Johnson, Peter. “Hobbes on Human Nature and the Necessity of Manners.” Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 3.1 (1998): 67.
(3) Ibid.
(4) Ibid.


  1. […] went square dancing last night. When I got home, I tried to write, but I was too tired. Strange. I was hyper from the […]



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