It is difficult to pass critical judgment on people's behavior when it is an expression of their heritage, practiced out of reverence for the customs of their people. Difficult, but becoming easier, Miss Manners finds.

This is because the Ethnic Excuse has caught on. Miss Manners, having gone through the Psychological Excuse, the Medical Excuse and various other claims of being too harried, sensitive, important, creative or morally upright to observe the rules requiring consideration for others that apply to the rest of us, is fresh out of dispensations.

If any such appeal could touch her flinty heart, it would be this one. Comparative culture is of tremendous interest to her, and tradition and respect are the very concepts she teaches. How pleased she has been to see others pay sympathetic attention.

And then look what happened. Encouraged by society's enlightened appreciation of different patterns of civilization and its understanding of the value of drawing on the richness of this global treasure, enterprising people of diverse backgrounds made a united claim:

If their behavior would be considered acceptable anywhere it ought to be acceptable everywhere.

This sounds reasonable to reasonable people. We no longer believe in the rightness, let alone the feasibility, of forcing people to forgo traditions that are historically and emotionally significant to them.

Approval by another culture ought to be enough to establish validity.

The rest is history.

At any rate, it is not cultural anthropology.

That is because the theory has proved better than the fieldwork. As more people take up the idea, it has became apparent that customs are being ever more loosely defined. As the habit grew of explaining behavior in terms of differing customs, Miss Manners started noticing something wrong.

Most customs for which this claim was made did not seem to be nice customs. And the people who promulgated them weren't at all nice about explaining why others from the same culture either hadn't heard of these customs or found them objectionable.

In extreme cases, Miss Manners heard of custom being used to justify law-breaking in cases of public drunkenness, domestic violence and armed robbery. Those would be in the moral realm, so she was able to scamper away to the manners realm, where things were not quite as dreadful.

But they are not charming, either. Hostility to outsiders has been glorified as cultural bonding, as has humiliating members within the group, notably women and children.

There is hardly a segment of society, no matter what its background, that hasn't--just within the last few years--come up with the canard that its particular subculture requires a particular ploy for extracting money from guests, especially wedding guests.

Yet people whose inviolable attachment to their heritage compels them to practice this are curiously averse to such widespread, authentic and ancient wedding customs as mothers-in-law checking bridal sheets the next day to make sure that the bride was a virgin.

Miss Manners fails to see how it is respectful to any culture to advertise that it is characterized by callousness, cruelty and greed. And as most cultures share basic human values, this is rarely true.

Where it is, as in modern society to which so many different traditions have contributed, the greatest heritage has been the willingness to alter tradition to conform with humanitarian values.

That is the cultural achievement in which people should take the greatest pride.

(c) 1999, Judith Martin