Opinion In a nasty era, insisting on basic politeness is a revolutionary idea

(Danielle Kunitz/The Washington Post)
(Danielle Kunitz/The Washington Post)

“Be Kind or Leave.” The newspaper article, and the restaurant sign that inspired it, caught my eye. The owner of an Erie, Pa., eatery posted the notice after tiring of obnoxious, belligerent customers berating his employees and sometimes each other.

It seems the escalating — make that descending — level of boorish behavior in our society has many in customer-facing enterprises rethinking their traditional “all are welcome” policies. As a Rhode Island hotel manager put it, “The customer was always right. Well, they’re not.” One consumer-research consultant said he now advocates drawing of clear and firm rules: “If you don’t meet our expectations of decorum, leave.”

These folks should have met my friend Jan Williams. The owner of one of hundreds of Indiana diners, taverns and other small establishments I visited during a decade of constant travel through our state, Jan ran her Bainbridge Tap with, shall we say, high standards. On the first of many drop-ins at the place, I was intrigued by a cardboard sign taped to the kitchen door. It listed 10 or 12 names under the arresting heading “Barred for Life.”

Even though I had just met Jan, I had to ask, “Really? For life?” (Answer: “It means what it says.”) “Okay,” I said, “what gets a person barred for life?”

The range of transgressions included: fighting; breaking a beer bottle over another guy’s head (that he was dancing too close to the perp’s girlfriend was not deemed exculpatory); breaking a beer bottle over your husband’s head (Jan’s rules were gender-neutral); bringing a minor into the bar, or being the minor brought in; trying to run over Jan in the parking lot; or, most memorably, throwing a dead possum in the back of Jan’s pickup truck. Jan gave no second chances and brooked no appeals of her convictions. In the Tap, rules were rules.

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Encouragingly, signs that Americans are fed up with the trampling of what once were called manners have spread beyond diners and smaller communities such as Erie and Bainbridge. The profanity, vitriol and sheer personal nastiness swirling across social media platforms have led companies such as Google and Twitter to devise filters that try to reduce overly hostile expression, as opposed to trying to regulate content. Google’s Perspective artificial intelligence product is now in use not just at Reddit and other sites but also, to their credit, at a number of news originators, including The Post.

One wishes these new politeness police every success and wide emulation. But if not, life will go on, just less pleasantly.

In the real world, beyond the reach of any machine learning, antisocial behavior is increasingly common where America can least afford it: in public school systems. There, disruptive, sometimes barbarous conduct is blighting the futures of innocent children and inflicting lasting damage on our society.

One doesn’t have to be elderly to recall times when even minor misbehavior was grounds for removal from the classroom and maybe from the school itself. The schools didn’t carry the whole burden of keeping order. In proposing a bill, as Indiana’s governor in 2008, to protect discipline-enforcing teachers from lawsuits, I observed, “If I had ever gotten in any big trouble at school, my dad would have come right down there. But he wouldn’t have been looking for the principal.” And that was when a mere disrespectful remark justified banishment from class.

Today, when an astonishing 10 percent of public school teachers report not just misbehavior but threatened or actual physical violence directed at them, the damage to the young lives exposed to this conduct is irrefutable and tragic. In one of many such studies, the National Bureau of Economic Research found that classroom exposure to just one disruptive boy in a class of 25 reduced test scores, the likelihood of receiving any degree and lifetime earnings — all by significant margins.

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Anyone who has talked with inner-city parents on charter school waiting lists or, where they are available, rushing to utilize vouchers or choice scholarships knows that for many, if not most, the first goal is not academic quality but a setting free of chaos.

Impeding any school, but especially those serving low-income and minority students, from maintaining order in the classroom is worse than mindless; it’s inhumane.

It has been a few years since my last visit to the Bainbridge Tap, and when I called there recently, I learned that Jan sold the place a few years back. Christie, an employee of 20 years, told me that the “Barred for Life” sign is gone but that the uncompromising standards — for both conduct and the Tap’s signature frog legs — still apply.

Jan Williams was a great small-business person, but I sometimes wish she’d have chosen to become a school principal instead. She’d probably have posted a sign: “If you don’t meet our expectations for decorum, leave.”

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