In this Radio Four mini-series, David Mitchell examines how the concept of manners emerged and evolved through time, and their relevance and/or redundancy in the world of today. He considers whether manners are in decline, and if so, should anything be done to reverse the trend?
Nowadays we live in a society that likes to point the finger. Political conscientiousness seems to have been replaced with its more arrogant cousin, self-righteousness. There are countless programmes on television dedicated to ridiculing those on benefits, with a particular low-point to be found in Channel 4’s Dogs on the Dole.
Scapegoating is on the rise as people look to the Paris terror attacks to confirm their prejudices, and the potential anonymity of social media leads to ever more vitriolic vents of abuse directed against anyone in the public sphere. It is easy to be pessimistic when confronted with this bleak landscape, where politeness seems to have been sacrificed in the desire for social amplification.
Mitchell visits a primary school, where he discusses the idea of inborn egocentricity, interspersed with clips from some ‘well-brought-up’ pupils. He then goes on to take a look at the historical context from which manners arose and developed. As it turns out, politeness was quite literally a matter of life and death for those living in the late Middle Ages. It was a mechanism whereby murderous impulses were suppressed.
Manners were heightened as conventions became increasingly elaborate at the court of Louis XIV and the nobility were civilised, moving away from their traditional ‘warrior class’ status. Another motivation for the tightening of etiquette was the encroachment of the bourgeoisie, not only in terms of economic clout but also their social customs – it was the age of populuxe goods and the appropriation of sensibilities.
David Mitchell’s witty asides and tendency to get caught up in a tangential anecdote really add value to what is a well-researched, thoughtful, and most importantly entertaining programme.
Image: Sharon Sinclair