Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Good Manners and Right Conduct

Teenagers have a tendency to rebel against accepted practice because they realize that the social sense of what is appropriate and inappropriate practice is socially constructed and that nothing is taboo in and of themselves but is only taboo because society says so. Furthermore, they feel that this definition of what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate practice is an exercise of social domination, social power or social control and this realization leads to their active resistance.

The problem is that these teenagers are correct on all counts. The sense of what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate practice is socially constructed and they do constitute exercises in social domination (at the very least, the domination of the society over an individual, not necessarily the domination of a particular group or individual over other individuals).

The problem is compounded by the fact that the reason why we engage in certain practices and not others does not usually flow from any logic and society would not perish if the practices were changed but we engage in these practices anyway because we "know" that this is how things are done.

Good manners, for example, are simply based on social convention or are derived from some ancient historical practice that has no contemporary relevance. The handshake (which used to be a medieval symbol that knights were unarmed; that's why we shake with our right hands) or the tipping of one's hat (or a salute for that matter which replicates a knight's raising of his visor to show his face to an approaching knight) has no contemporary logic aside from the fact that these are how things are done.

Everytime we have formal academic gatherings at the University, the faculty are hard pressed to remember if the tassle on the cap should be on the left or on the right until a colleague said that in medieval times, left was the side of royalty.

It is good when there are such explanations (which often lead teenagers to ask if practices should change now that circumstances are different) but most people do not know these explanations and most practices do not have explanations. That is why when teenagers ask why certain practices are considered inappropriate and they unmask the fact that these standards have no logical basis, an exasperated adult might just end up saying "because that's the way things are" or in Tagalog, "ah basta".

What teenagers need to know is that the practice of good manners and right conduct is not done in and for itself but is an affirmation of one's membership in a particular society by following that society's social conventions.

Next Post: Thursday, November 2.

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