Here and there – Courtesy, cutlery and gorillas


An Australian playwright remarked that the difference between us and gorillas was cutlery.  He may also have said courtesy.  Indeed, cutlery is a function of courtesy – rather than tearing at meat with our hands, we add a knife and fork to add custom, style, ornament, hygiene, and ritual to the meal.

The word courtesy originally referred to the manners of the court.  Now Debrett’s Etiquette and Modern Manners teaches us that ‘good manners means showing consideration for others – a sensibility that is innate in some people and in others requires considerable inculcation.’  (Well, it is Debrett.)

Consideration for others – that’s what makes it possible for us to get on with each other.  Good manners are the oil of communal life.  I saw many examples of this when over a long period I acted for about half a dozen members of the Establishment – with a big ‘E’.  They had very different views on matters in hand, that were reverberating in our public life, but one thing struck me about each of them.  Their manners were both impeccable and so seemingly natural – or, in Debrett’s term, innate.  You can forgive an awful lot in a person if they treat you and others with courtesy.

Here is an example.  I was coming along Collins Street, Melbourne in a tram with a client.  We were due to get off at different parts of the line.  But my client got off on my stop.  Why?  ‘Geoffrey.  One noticed that the rain has started.’  (Yes – he was old fashioned enough to say ‘one’.)  ‘I noticed that you didn’t have your brolly.  I do, and I can get back on a tram at the next stop.’  I beetled home that night in some dejection, wondering if I had done enough to teach my children good manners.

We are seeing courtesy subside all around us.  Technology and social media annihilate it.  Those people in the entertainment industry called sportspeople are above and beyond courtesy, and they get dirty if you question their right to claim that space.  There is hardly any courtesy left in politics – beside question time in our parliaments, a pigsty sounds toffy.

If courtesy is in truth the oil of communal life – and it is – then that life will seize up, as it is doing, when the oil is drained out.  Donald Trump is just the nadir of our decline.  He may just be the rudest person ever born.  He may also be the greatest bullshit-artist ever born.

Bullshit is a denial of logic.  Logic is the oil of our thinking and talking.  Logic therefore stands to our intellectual life in the same way that courtesy stands to our communal life.  Are the declines in courtesy and logic in some way linked?

Well, if you look at people like Nigel Farage in England, Pauline Hanson in Australia, and Donald Trump in America, you would certainly say yes.  They are all equally committed to the obliteration of truth and consideration for others.  Trump, in particular, has trouble putting a sentence together.  And we have arrived in the gutter at the confluence of our declines when the President of the United States fires Cabinet Ministers with a tweet.

Now the gutter overflows.  Our children and their children get to see women of a colourful past tell of their sexual liaisons with the U S President – and his efforts to buy their silence.  It is absurd to suggest that a man so exposed to blackmail could be entrusted with national secrets.

Well, we got used to unbridled sex at the White House with Messrs Kennedy and Clinton, but Donald Trump stands accused of sexual misconduct that was anything but agreed.  These accusers are respectable people.  They are believed – even by the Judas of the watery home team smile.  But these ladies – for that is what they are – are as old as decency itself.  What we now get is Stormy Daniels and a Playboy Bunny.  What are we supposed to say to our children?  From time to time, the world goes mad?

How is it that a once decent people – we can safely put greatness to one side – could fall so low so fast?  For an answer, you would have to seek out a very, very old German or Italian – someone born, say, in about 1925.

Donald Trump is guilty not just because he has no manners, but because he is frankly vicious.  But perhaps that is just two ways of saying the same thing.  And at least gorillas are free of bullshit.