In the consensus that we want a more civil society than the feisty mix we presently enjoy, there is also general agreement that exemptions must be allowed to essential personnel. People whose professional missions are vital to the well-being of the society cannot be hampered by being required to perform the small niceties.

Our only disagreement is about who these people are. If everyone else is to be required to stop to consider the welfare of others, we need to identify those who have right of way.

Miss Manners has found them willing to speak up and identify themselves. This is no time for modesty. (Besides, they are only claiming importance for performing their jobs, not for themselves personally. And while getting to and from their jobs, of course. And during the recreation that they so badly need in order to be rested to do their jobs.)

Foremost among these emergency workers are, as everyone would agree, people practicing any medical profession. (Miss Manners has applied for an exemption from having to call them health-care providers.) We can't let politeness stand in the way of health.

Doctors have always led the way in demanding exemption from the ordinary standards of politeness, such as keeping appointments, apologizing when running late, addressing people as equals, requesting permission to grab them and refraining from disrupting social and cultural events. It seems only fair to allow these privileges to all others who care for the sick, with doctors retaining the unique privilege of being rude to all who assist them.

What about justice?

Miss Manners is not, of course, petitioning for justice for patients. She refers to those who should be exempt from having to behave properly because they are engaged in the pursuit of justice.

Historically, the legal profession lagged behind in applying for civility exemptions, but it is rapidly catching up. In the modern courtroom, the person who is expected to behave himself is the accused felon.

Law enforcement officers are also pursing justice, so police have traditionally been allowed to practice and require whatever manners they see fit, not necessarily in matching standards. In New York City, right now, they are being told to behave better than law-abiding citizens.

Even some law-defying citizens lay claim to being exempt on the grounds of being engaged in public service. By virtue of their attempts to bring the populace to a higher plane of morality, they claim the necessity of being rude to their fellow citizens.

Miss Manners has heard members of her own august profession of journalism declaim that they cannot be expected to be polite because they are in pursuit of truth. As we cannot have Justice without Truth, that is where she would begin. But lest she be accused of favoritism, she would not grant this immunity to the entire profession, but only to that part of it actively engaged in introducing into the world that which is most badly needed -- civility. So get out of her way.

No, not really. Etiquette, of all professions, refuses to grant an exception to the requirement of being polite, even while performing a useful social function. For itself and all other professions.

(C) 1999, Judith Martin