The word should be out by now, Miss Manners would have thought, that adult society will no longer tolerate the open expression of bigotry. Every week there seems to be another painful story about a career that is ruined because some prominent person has made an obviously prejudiced remark.
Yet those caught never fail to be surprised that a negative generalization about people based on their race, religion, gender or national origin could offend the targeted group, much less the society at large.
Stunned, they make one of the following replies:
"You see? They're oversensitive."
"Can't anybody take a joke any more?"
"You shouldn't listen to what I say when I'm angry, because I get out of control."
"Everybody knows I'm not a bigot, so I can say what I want."
"I was only saying what everybody else thinks."
"Well, their objections interfere with my freedom of speech."
These people have reckoned without the power of etiquette. They think they can do anything they wish as long as it's not illegal.
Woe unto them, Miss Manners murmurs darkly.
Unfortunately, this stance is particularly prevalent on college campuses. Administrators who believe in freedom of speech with all their hearts (as does Miss Manners) seem stymied when that is cited on the side of incivility and intolerance. Dedicated to the airing of all points of view, they nevertheless realize that nobody can teach or learn in an atmosphere of hate and harassment.
Well, of course not. Civilization cannot function without a system of etiquette that prevents us from living in a state of mutual antagonism, even though it is true that law cannot condemn this without endangering freedom.
In situations where members of the society do not have the maturity to enforce restraints upon themselves, those charged with looking after their welfare must make explicit etiquette rules binding on anyone who freely elects to participate in their community. Universities have always had some sorts of restrictive rules. One of the pleasures of attending college reunions is recounting how one got around these rules, and bemoaning the fact that the rules have been softened for current students.
Etiquette has always been the primary force in charge of banning offensive speech that does not actually constitute an immediate danger, although Miss Manners admits that it has not always done as vigorous a job of enforcing this as it should have.
Law has a difficult time stopping people from wounding one another with words. It can, in its weighty way, prosecute people for slander and libel, and, with more difficulty, mental cruelty and harassment. But anything short of this is not apt to be covered.
Etiquette should also make sure it is not condemning anyone unfairly. The weapon of social disapproval, while less threatening than fines or jail, is a powerful one and should not be abused.
But etiquette acts swiftly, having little trouble telling the difference between a genuine joke or legitimate observation, and an insult. As its concern is maintaining civil surface behavior, it is deaf to excuses about anger or the honesty of expressing offensive thoughts. The past record of a presumed offender in fighting bigotry certainly counts in establishing that the remark may have been misinterpreted, but it does not give license to transgress current standards.
The argument that criminal intent is mitigated by one's psychological state has not made much of a dent on etiquette, which doesn't really believe that other people can shove words in your mouth.
Q: We received an engraved invitation to an open house in honor of a young couple. There was no mention of an engagement or marriage.
In the lower right-hand corner of the invitation were the words "silver, china, crystal."
Is this the ultimate in tackiness and a major breach of etiquette? Also, shouldn't open houses be held after a couple marries and not before?
A: Who says these people are getting married? As Miss Manners understands it, they are merely shopping for silver, china and crystal. You may cooperate with them in this enterprise or not, as you choose.
There is such a thing as the legitimate open-house party, not to be confused with a wedding reception. At an open house, often held to welcome friends to a new house, guests do not require their hosts to produce a marriage certificate.
On the other hand, there is no such thing as a legitimate social event at which hosts demand outright that guests furnish their houses.