It is time, America, to be more civil. This was the message handed down on Friday, March 20, in the Dome Room of the Rotunda. America is lacking in manners, and one dead president, one etiquette theorist, and well-mannered college students everywhere are going to do something about it.
“Timely and important to society” is what UVA Dean of Students Allen Groves called “The Civility Project: Where George Washington Meets the 21st Century.” When he was a young boy, our first president laboriously copied out 110 rules for behavior (copied, it should be pointed out, not wrote)—good stuff like “Put not off your Cloths in the presence of Others” and “In visiting the Sick, do not Presently play the Physicion if you be not Knowing therein.” Now, some concerned UVA students and nationally syndicated etiquette columnist Miss Manners have decided to update these rules for the modern world.
When I attended the kickoff for the project on Friday morning, several questions ran through my mind: What kind of person goes to a “Civility Project” launch party? Apparently 20 or so students and professorial types, all crisply dressed. Will a cell phone ring during the event? Yes, of course. And most importantly, do we really need to be more civil?
Not surprisingly, Judith Martin, the current Miss Manners, had a lot to say on the subject of civility. She took pains to make it clear that she wasn’t simply a “fork fetishist,” as she calls the fussy old ladies of yesterday’s etiquette columns. Today, the “instant intimacy of America” is being spread all over the world, and so it is important that Americans take etiquette seriously once again.
The difficulty comes when etiquette meets America’s love of freedom, something that rules of behavior are correctly seen to inhibit. The purpose, she said, of a university like Thomas Jefferson’s is not to protect freedom of speech, but to seek the truth, and we can only do that if we are well behaved. After listing some tips on being in the etiquette business (“You will spend a lot of time listening to people’s pet peeves”), she ended her talk with a recruitment plea. Go out there, young people of America, and spread civility. The crowd applauded politely.
I left the talk with the biggest question unanswered. Does anyone, especially the college students of America, really care about civility these days? If most Internet discourse or the average comment in The Rant is any guide, the answer is: Who the hell knows. But at least now you can have your say. Submit your suggested rules of civility here, or at the promised Facebook page. And please, put your cell phone on vibrate.
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