What’s happened to good manners in the South? The New York Times reported that while good manners have always been part of a Southerner’s identity in some sense, they are no longer a priority. Men are less apt to give up their seats for ladies, people are less openly friendly or deferential, and terms of respect when addressing others have all but disappeared. As school teacher Dana Mason pointed out, “parents who move South tell her they don’t want their children to learn to say ‘yes, sir’ or ‘yes, ma’am.’ Too demeaning, they say.”
A number of reasons have been offered to explain the decline in manners in Southern culture. Some posit that “strict rules regarding courtesy and deference to others have historically been used as a way to enforce a social order in which women and blacks were considered less than full citizens . . . as a way to smooth the edges of a harsh racial system.” Presumably they are no longer needed? Others blame the influx of newcomers as the South is the fastest growing region in the country. Scholars point to digital communication, globalization, economic insecurity, and other complexities. Mason blames “a faster pace of life and the demise of the home-cooked family meal.” The world is changing in general. Southern weddings are no longer about catering to the guests but to the bride and groom due to a self-centered age; civility in political discourse and customs of respect are all but gone as partisanship has become ultimate; and two-working parents in one home don’t have the time or desire to focus on manners. Some point out that manners are often a way of keeping space between oneself and others. A decline in “bless your heart” fakeness therefore may be a good thing.
What are we to make of this development and these explanations?
Manners are the product of a Christian worldview. It’s not that everyone who appreciates and practices good manners is a Christian, but it is the case that those who appreciate and practice good manners have been influenced by a Christian worldview whether they realize it or not. Manners are rooted in things like love for neighbor, respect for others, a consideration of others before oneself, a desire to be kind, humility, deference to others, etc. They put God’s character on display. Such things make no sense on an evolutionary worldview where it’s every man for himself. They make no sense on a relativistic worldview where there is no standard of what’s polite or impolite. And other religions that promote some form of good will among neighbors have simply borrowed from the biblical worldview. From the time of creation and throughout history two things have been true: first, all human beings are created in the image of God and bear His stamp upon their consciences (Romans 1-2); second, the entire world has been affected in one way or another at some point by God’s truth, (though it’s been seriously distorted).
There is no doubt that manners linger in the Southern United States more so than in the Northern United States as the Christian worldview has lingered in the South longer. At the same time, it is no surprise that manners are on the decline in the South as the Christian worldview is increasingly eroded. Other worldviews are taking hold in Southern culture – worldviews that care little for others or what they think.
And yes, there is insincerity in the expression of manners on the part of many – the “bless your heart” mentality that says one thing and thinks or does another. It is interesting that some scholars would suggest that manners should be set aside because of that insincerity. The notion is that manners themselves are somehow inherently flawed or outmoded and that we would have a more honest society without them. But insincerity is the result of human sin and not a flaw in the concept of manners themselves. Does it even make sense to say that being nice to someone is inherently flawed and therefore we should not be nice to others? Does it make sense to say that good manners are “too demeaning?” Of course it doesn’t. But once the Christian worldview is rejected, we have no real basis to understand or explain anything and all we can do is grope in the dark. The numerous explanations for a decline of manners in the South highlight that reality. Those explanations are rooted in symptoms and not in a cause. But the Bible gives us a cause – human sin.
“Keepers of Southern civility maintain that manners will always be a defining characteristic of the region. One of them is Dorothy McLeod, 70, of Augusta, Ga., who has spent decades teaching thousands of children ballroom dance and etiquette. . . . [She is] firm in her belief that Southerners still want to raise children who are kind and well-mannered.” With all due respect to Mrs. McLeod, her belief is rooted in wishful thinking in the face of cultural evidence to the contrary. Manners will cease to be a defining characteristic of the South unless the church reasserts itself and that won’t happen unless the church wakes up and ceases going to church and starts being the church once again. Of course, good manners in the South are not the motivation for the church to be the church, but they, along with a lot of other benefits to society, will be part of the result.
Dr. Paul Dean invites you to discover more about the role of Government, the role of the church, and the role of the market . . . and develop a Christian worldview. Dr. Dean is a pastor, cultural commentator, and author. Please visit http://www.governmentcurrentevents.com