WASHINGTON, June 10, 2014 — President Obama drew strong negative attention in France for masticating through the entire 70th-anniversary D-Day ceremonies last week. “Disgusting!” went the tweets. “Revolting!” “Lack of respect!” “Obama and his chewing disgust me.”
Those were just from the French. Republicans were even harsher.
This was nothing new. Obama’s jaw was in constant motion during Nelson Mandela’s funeral in December, even when he wasn’t talking.
There are a number of things we’re supposed not to do in public. Our mothers and grandmothers drill them into us when we’re children: Don’t pick your nose; don’t pick and eat your earwax (Rep. Joe Garcia, D-Fla., seems to have missed that one); don’t chew gum. You especially don’t chew gum at funerals and D-Day ceremonies.
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One of the civilizing jobs of parents is to teach their children manners. Every parent knows it’s an uphill battle. Manners don’t come naturally to us, and for a very good reason: They’re unnatural.
Our base impulses tell us to be comfortable and to be ourselves. In polite company, those are the last things we want to be; no one else much likes us at our most comfortable and when we are most ourselves. Not even our mothers, which is why they’re so adamant about teaching us manners.
Manners are a convention, a way to get along with people we don’t know. They aren’t some hoity-toity set of rules made up by old people with nothing better to do than put the rest of us in our place. They’re a way to show respect, to let others know that we want them to be comfortable, rules that let us interact with complete strangers without inciting fist-fights.
If you think that manners don’t matter, go make random hand gestures in a bar full of gang members. At some point, you’ll make an enemy hand sign and either get beaten to a pulp or have your entrails pulled out through your nose. Hand signs are a convention, just like manners, and just because they don’t mean something to you doesn’t mean they don’t mean something to the people around you. If you’re going to hang out with Hell’s Angels or Bloods, you’d better know what they consider impolite and avoid it.
Your in-laws are no different, except they won’t disembowel you. You want to avoid giving them unnecessary offense, to show them some respect, and the way to do that is through manners. Don’t make rude hand gestures, don’t chew with your mouth open, don’t pick your earwax or chew gum.
None of these things are bad in and of themselves; they’re bad because they incite disgust in others or send a message of disrespect.
So does meeting people for dinner armed as if you expect them to attack you over dessert. I can hear my mother-in-law weeping now: “He thinks we’re barbarians!”
Many adult Americans have firearms, just as most of them have genitalia. And while most of us know that, we don’t like to be reminded of it at the dinner table.
If the law in your state allows open carry, then you have a legal right to carry your guns in the open. If the law allows earwax picking (and the odds are that it’s legal in your state), you have a legal right to do that, too. Or to reach into your pants, wiggle your fingers and smile lasciviously at passers-by.
The questions remain, what will other people think? What message are you sending? Should you care? The message Obama sent with his gum chewing was one of disrespect for Mandela and World War II vets. That probably isn’t the message he intended to send, but with manners, it isn’t your intentions that matter, but perceptions. His gum chewing was offensive just because it is. He might as well have scratched his nose with his middle finger while chatting with the Queen.
Obama apparently suffers from nicotine cravings. He was chewing away at a Nicorette. Those of us who have never suffered the hell of a nicotine craving during a funeral can only imagine with pity what Obama went through, and perhaps be grateful that he didn’t pull out a cigarette and ask the Queen for a light.
On the other hand, your grandmother didn’t tell you it was okay to scratch your bottom in public if you had an unbearable itch. She told you to keep your hand off your bottom in public even if it killed you. Someone should introduce Obama to nicotine patches, or he should suffer until he gets back to his hotel. Manners aren’t for your comfort, after all, but for the comfort of everyone else. And even presidents should show respect to others.
The open-carry controversy can be viewed in terms of making other people comfortable. Carrying your guns around in public is generally perceived as threatening and rude, so unless you have good reason to believe that the cashier at Chipotle is about to jump you, you should leave them hidden under your coat.
We live in a nation of rugged individualists who want to live life on their own terms. The problem is that that’s incompatible with living in a society, where you have to make compromises and take into account the feelings of others. If you want to pick your nose, chew gum, and carry a gun in public, either be Kim Jong Un and write your own rules, or move to a cave and be a public of one.
Living in a society isn’t just a matter of legal rights, but of conventions, manners and compromise. Without those, you don’t have a society. You can’t even have a marriage.
Rather than doing what they want because they can, Obama and armed Target shoppers should ask what grandma would do, and then do it.