People are mighty touchy nowadays about how they are treated, and quick to condemn accidents or confusion as rudeness. Being pushed against someone in a crowded bus is as likely to inspire a loud denunciation as an accepted apology. Wedding invitations may be received as insults because the recipients’ choice of honorifics (Mr. and Mrs., Ms., Dr., or none) or altered surnames (in hyphenated or blended families) was not known.
Naturally, this sensitivity to etiquette does not extend to improved behavior on the part of the offended. On the contrary, it often inspires retaliatory rudeness. Rather, the burden of decorum has been carried by so-called role models.
These are not always well-chosen. It is hard to remember that movie stars were once considered role model material, and their studios put considerable effort into maintaining that they led wholesome lives. Sports stars lasted somewhat longer in the public imagination, but an accumulation of accusations of domestic and extra-domestic violence has tainted that.
Politicians may not be full role models in the sense that no responsible parent would urge a child to be one. It is more like “You could grow up to be President— or whatever you want,” with the emphasis on the latter. But statesmen have nevertheless been expected to behave themselves. Sex scandals, financial shenanigans, and the derision of entire segments of the population destroyed political careers—at least until the perpetrators were able to claim that these were symptoms of an illness for which they had hurriedly received therapy.
History, moving more slowly than today’s electronically empowered gossip, keeps revealing the disconnect between morals and manners. But oddly, it is the manners violations that often cause downfalls. Provided that the moral transgression is not too creepy—usually meaning that it involves children, prostitutes, public bathrooms, pornography, or some pithy combination—astonishing comebacks have been made by means of a penitent but dignified demeanor.
Manners transgressions have always been harder to live down. A single instance of screaming doomed the 2004 presidential campaign of Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean. Gaffes that smacked of jeering, bullying, or defaming brought down many a political career. There is only so much credibility left in the Context Excuse—claiming that you didn’t say what you are recorded to have said, which is being replayed all over the internet.
So why did so many citizens elect a president of the United States who unabashedly—even proudly—violated those expectations?
Some claim that they voted for reasons in spite of such personal behavior. But in listening to the partisans’ spirited enthusiasm, it is impossible to escape the realization that for many, it was because of such behavior.
This is a startling change. We now know about crude behavior on the part of past presidents, including Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy, and others, going back in time, as history keeps being unearthed. But these transgressions were not widely known by the public in their respective times.
Nevertheless, in spite of the glamorization of outlaws and gangsters, people do not naturally think that their leaders should violate the standards to which they subscribe. We still pay obeisance to virtue. What has happened is that the virtues have been redefined.
We now have Alternate Virtues:
1. Authenticity (formerly Vulgarity)
This is a newly popular concept, born of disillusionment. So many public figures have been caught doing or saying something hypocritical that paragons no longer seem plausible. So if you know enough dreadful things about someone, perhaps you have hit bottom and will be spared the shock of further revelations.
2. Frankness (formerly Discretion)
Speaking one’s mind has come to be considered praiseworthy, regardless of the quality of what is expressed. Wholesale insults of segments of the society had generally been considered unfit for public consumption, however sincerely felt, but now the sincerity is the important part.
3. Honesty (formerly Respect)
This is the person-to-person version of saying it all. Nobody is in favor of dishonesty, but the pre-social media era, when people were told that their personal problems were all due to a lack of communication, spread the idea that there was something admirable about insulting people to their faces.
4. Safety (formerly Due Process)
As no one really knows how to combat terrorism, there are those who believe that we can only be saved if we fight as dishonorably as our enemies.
5. Open-mindedness (formerly Scholarship)
The concept of relativity has strangely given rise to the belief that the emotional power of moral conviction elevates arguments above facts.
6. Assertiveness (formerly Fairness)
Observing minorities using solidarity and pride to bind together and protest discrimination has given members of the majority the idea that the technique can be applied to competing with them at this to obtain additional advantages.
7. Humility (formerly Discernment)
This is the modern virtue that has, at least in theory, effectively replaced Exercising Judgment with Not Being Judgmental. Of course, people keep judging one another. But for those to whom they wish to give a pass, the who-am-I-to-judge rationale is applied.
8. Forgiveness (formerly Reputation)
We have seen saintly examples of victims and their bereaved forgiving the responsible criminals. But in the case of public figures, the concept has expanded. It no longer means giving the person a chance to repent and show better behavior, but rather erasing the record, to the extent that even mentioning it is considered to be in bad taste. Thus the person who has behaved badly has the same claim to public trust as the one who has behaved well all along.
9. Achievement (formerly Overcoming Obstacles)
The hope is that prosperity is catching, so the ideal life story for a public figure is about achieving success from poor origins, preferably not with major legal setbacks. But the dazzle of riches can be enough to obscure the journey.
10. Entertainment (formerly Setting an Example)
Having had eight years of a dignified president with an exemplary family life, people are hungry for the pleasures of scandal.
11. Acting Out (formerly Acting Presidential)