Monday, February 09, 2009

Neither Rude nor Wrong

Pit good manners against a thought-out moral standard and I'll always choose the latter.

In the play A Man for All Seasons, which chronicles Sir Thomas More's refusal to accept the putative children of Anne Boleyn as legitimate heirs to the throne, the question is put this way:
DUKE OF NORFOLK: But damn it, Thomas, look at those names.... You know those men! Can't you do what I did, and come with us, for fellowship?

THOMAS MORE: And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience, and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?
Something like this arose when, in the context of a conversation about the upbringing of boys as opposed to that of girls, I mentioned a teenage boy who, on principle, had declined girls' invitations to bed. My interlocutors, two middle class American women, cringed at my allegedly "inappropriate" talk of sex, without ever quite citing a principle.

Indeed, what principles? Both are of tepid, Episcopalian upbringing, a worldview in which purity is wearing white gloves. Yet both had the effrontery of agreeing with each other as they shared the laughter of female camaraderie -- Norfolk's fellowship -- that I had been "inappropriate."

In the name of what morals was I at fault for telling of a boy who acted on a matter of conviction that did not meet with the approval of peers? One need not agree with the boy's views to admire his moral courage.

I could not get a response philosophically sharper than the edges of a jellyfish. Impropriety seemed to consist only of whatever feels edgy. Propriety seemed to amount to a mannerly anomie of studied indifference.

Manners be damned.
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