Manners maketh man

January 30, 2011 at 12:51 pm 5 comments

By John Craig

‘Manners maketh man’ was the motto of the boarding-school-on-steroids where I studied for my degree, and my feelings about it have twice shifted.  Arriving as a chippy nineteen-year-old to rituals of matriculation and passing the port, it seemed to sum up their surface-over-substance perversity.  Then I learnt that ‘manners’ refers not to table manners but to the manner in which a man lives his life.  Suddenly, as a fourteenth-century quotation, it started to seem prescient, almost democratic.  However, now my view of it is changing again; it is starting to feel like an enlightenment sense of ourselves that is receding.

The source of this recent shift can be seen in journalism, a profession of interest because – as I have argued before – it is ahead of the curve in the effects of the information age, a belle weather for teachers and doctors.  There has been a great deal of comment about Wikileaks, best of all from John Lloyd in the FT.  The primary question is whether radical transparency and the supposed elimination of privacy won’t in practice shift debate and decision-making further from public scrutiny and accountability.

While this debate about the utility of changes in journalism is important, it risks obscuring another about our own self-understanding.  From the throw-away comments of ambassadors to those of Business Secretaries, the implication is that we are most ourselves in those private, unguarded moments when we do or say the first thing that comes into our head.  Our true self is not to be strived for in public life – and the responsibilities and commitments it brings – it emerges from deep inside us late at night.  Growing up is a process of of self-discovery not self-creation.

As Weber and Sennett might argue, where ‘manners maketh man’ seems to anticipate an empowering existentialism, this Calvinist view sees trivial slip-ups as evidence of the destiny written in our heart.  To me that’s crazy – we should hold ourselves and others to account for what we do.

One account of schizophrenia is not that sufferers are not good enough at weaving a narrative for their life but that they are too good, identifying so many differences and contradictions to be resolved that they over power themselves.  If we forget that manners maketh man, we and our public discourse risk the same collective fate.

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. alecpatton  |  January 31, 2011 at 9:24 am

    Great post. I’m sure there’s a fascinating history to the competing notions of ‘self-as-constructed’ and ‘self-as-innate-and-revealed’ though I don’t know what it is, but I’m very confident that the notion that authenticity is to be found only in private utterances uttered under stress (and the further assumption that the most important thing about a public figure is their ‘authentic self’) is harmful to public discourse.

    However, I’m not entirely certain that this phenomenon is exacerbated by wikileaks, which is focused on professional secrets, rather than personal utterances. In other words, wikileaks is much more likely to reveal evidence that Coulson knew about phone-hacking than it is to suddenly reveal what a bunch of celebrities have been saying to each other on their mobiles.

    Reply
  • 2. John Craig  |  January 31, 2011 at 11:13 am

    Sorry, yes, you’re right, Wikileaks is a red herring. trying to pack what could be a year of book-writing into a few moments of blogging…

    Reply
  • 3. Alan  |  January 31, 2011 at 1:54 pm

    One of the more elaborate defences of Andy Gray I’ve heard…

    I don’t think journalists have a leg to stand on when it comes to Wikileaks. In fact I think the Wikileaks example works as a perfect straw man, highlights the absurd vanity of the media’s ‘in the public interest’ argument. I’m no fan of Assange, but why are they more qualified to decide that than him? Why is their particular axe to grind any blunter or more responsible than his?

    I entirely agree with your general sentiment though John (this is a great post). I’m not entirely sure what the solution is (although a PPC with more teeth might help, particularly in Cable’s case, where he actually says (“this is off the record!”). I’m not sure its possible to define something as inherently nebulous as the ‘public interest’ without impinging upon the media’s fourth estate role. Nor am I overly warm on Max Mosley’s proposed reforms (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-12154045) – I think the justice system is under enough pressure without becoming the arbitrator of the public interest. The phone-hacking scandal won’t do his chances of victory any harm though.

    Worse is to come though, as far as the blurring of pirvate and public man is concerned. The battlefield for all the above is still largely old media – although the Keys and Gray incident involved yotube leaks. The simple fact is that there isno way of controlling your personal image anymore, not in a new media world. What will happen when my generation, ‘the post-facebook’ generation start becoming public figures of authority? The Bullingdon club is small fry. There is simply no way that public discourse can continue to be conducted as it is currently. A respect for the right of people to talk unguarded nonsense in private or make youthful mistakes or generally have a private life distinct and seperate from the judgement of their ability to perform in their public role, would seem to be a necessary condition of the post facebook age. Doesn’t mean that it’s inevitable.

    Also John, I think Charlie Brooker hacked your phone. Good jokes.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/jan/31/charlie-brooker-paranoid-about-snoops

    Co-opting John Lloyd to ruminate on media

    Reply
  • 4. Alan  |  January 31, 2011 at 1:55 pm

    PCC*

    Reply
  • 5. alex  |  January 31, 2011 at 3:28 pm

    John

    Does that mean you went here ?

    http://www.new.ox.ac.uk/history-of-new-college-oxford

    Would today’s version be Do as you would be done by ?

    Alex

    Reply

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