Last week, after the European Space Agency managed to set its Philae lander down on Comet 67P, the organization’s accomplishment was marred by a serious fashion faux-pas. Matt Taylor, one of the physicists on the project, decided that the best outfit for his interview was a truly ugly bowling shirt in a busty-lady print. In a previous era, he might simply have been derided as a tasteless dork. But in this one, Taylor got caught up in a debate about how receptive the science and technology industries are to women.

I agree with people who found Taylor’s fashion choice jarring, and I feel for Taylor in his obvious embarrassment and regret. But most of all, the incident clarified something for me. I may not sympathize with conservative analyses of sexism and racism. But when it comes to identifying potential solutions to bad behavior, conservatives are right to zero in on good manners as a potential solution.

In writing about the name of Washington’s professional football team last year, Charles Krauthammer explained that for him, adapting to changing linguistic norms for how to refer to everyone from Roma to people with intellectual disabilities, was a matter of politeness and kindness more than anything else.

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“Let’s recognize that there are many people of good will for whom ‘Washington Redskins’ contains sentimental and historical attachment — and not an ounce of intended animus. So let’s turn down the temperature,” he argued. “What’s at issue is not high principle but adaptation to a change in linguistic nuance. A close call, though I personally would err on the side of not using the word if others are available.”

Krauthammer was making a point that is absent from many of our conversations about language. Rather than treating Native American advocates as people who are trying to take something valuable away from him, Krauthammer acknowledges that listening to them and complying with their requests costs him very little.

And rather than suggesting that people who hold onto the name are malign racists, Krauthammer is charging them with failures of empathy and courtliness. These are still serious accusations, but perhaps it is easier to discuss whether someone has bad manners or is inconsiderate than whether or not they are a wholly bad person.

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I feel similarly about Rich Lowry’s response to the now-viral Hollaback! video that showed a woman being harassed on the streets of New York. I disagree with his conclusion that such harassment has little to do with sex, class and race.

But, like other commentators on the right and left who worry about the overcriminalization of annoying, inappropriate behavior, I agree with him that an anti-harassment law would be difficult and probably counterproductive to enforce. And while I also think that his proposed solution–better manners for everyone–is a heavy lift, too, I think it is a better one.

“This is no excuse for catcalling. There is no reason to shout at random women — ever. There is no reason to comment on a stranger’s personal appearance — ever. There is no reason to go out of your way to make someone else feel uncomfortable on the street — ever,” Lowry wrote. “These are things that used to be self-evident to the gentleman, who not only wouldn’t holler at a woman, but, once upon a time, opened doors for her and yielded his seat to her. The gentleman was a product of culture…No legal regime can substitute for the web of informal rules and private institutions, family foremost among them, that are civilization’s tried and true methods of inculcating standards.”

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And so the solution to Matt Taylor’s exceptionally ugly shirt is not to make him a scapegoat. The guy, like one of the developers caught up in last year’s Donglegate uproar, seems genuinely contrite and aware of why his wardrobe choice was a poor one. Instead, maybe we could take up a collection to buy Taylor a good suit and a couple of well-fitting dress shirts. He may have missed the opportunity to look sharp and professional on what might be the biggest day of his career. But there will be other moments for Taylor to treat big occasions–and himself–with the respect that they deserve.

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