excerpted from caro's journal: topic: manners

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2008_05_24:16: Why and How

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A couple of years ago, I had a most disturbing revelation: a great number of people think that certain questions are in and of themselves rude.

A lot of people will tell you that this is obvious. Everyone knows that questions about people's religion or political views or how much money they make, are rude.

But that's not what I mean. I've worked out that people find it rude when you ask them "How" questions and "Why" questions. It doesn't matter what the topic is. Actually, it's worse than rude. It's brutal.

And that which has been said cannot be unsaid. Once you've been pegged as a person who asks How and Why questions--which would be instantaneously upon asking one or the other--that's it. You are the enemy.
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2001_07_20:18: Social Considerations

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New topic: Here, I present an objective conception of manners. The issues are poorly understood amongst objectivists and libertarians. Two major camps within these factions are the conservative traditionalists and the childish don't-tell-me-what-to-do slobs. My interpretation isn't like either except in the most superficial respects--sort of the way christianity is like egoism in that both condemn murder.

My main general comment is the the purpose of good manners is the benefit of the actor. But rather than start with an overarching theory and work downward, I start with behaviors and how they affect other people, and whether those effects are desirable to the actor or not.

Kids just love passing gas, orally or anally. I guess it's because it's a funny sound and because it produces strong reactions in other people. And there's a feeling of power in it, to be able to disturb people so, while simultaneously a sense of partial involuntariness that makes it hard to punish. They can simultaneously feel like silly children and self-directing grownups.

Some people never grow out of this gas fascination, however. Maybe they have some friends in high school who share it. Here in my neighborhood, there are a bunch of teenage boys who ceaselessly haunt the pool, burping and farting and swearing, obviously trying to outdo each other and clearly having a great time.

Leaving the pool area aside for the moment, consider being in closed quarters with someone who's expelling fumes from either or both ends. What's that like? Most importantly, it stinks. This is especially problematic if you happen to be eating, because the smell of the vapors mixes with the smell of the food. There are lots of people who would really rather just smell and taste the food, rather than the contents--in various states of decomposition--of another person's body. In addition, the sound carries with it associations of partially digested, rotting food or waste material. There are lots of people who'd rather not think about someone else's waste material while eating.

It can be objected, of course, that there are lots of people who really love a good fart, their own or someone else's, and that unknown multitudes of people have enjoyed rip-roaring good times exchanging gas and laughing all night.

This may very well be so. The problem is that you can't assume that that is what your present companions enjoy, or that that is what they would enjoy at the diningroom table.

The point becomes crucial when you are with people that you don't know very well, but that you'd like to know better. A date, say. You really don't know what this person considers a good time. Maybe your date would like nothing more than to let one fly and then laugh the night away.

The reason why restraint is in order, is that the date might be me. If my date farted and didn't convincingly apologize for the "accident", I'd never subject myself to a date with him again. Similarly, if someone I invited to a dinner party openly farted but didn't excuse himself (that actually happens to me a lot!), he'd simply never get invited again.

But why? Why this extreme and seemingly rigid and old-fashioned response? I submit that my reaction is due neither to extremism nor to blind rigidity nor to unreflective custom at all. It has to do with my personal enjoyment of life. Just as I don't choose sewers, garbage dumps, or piles of dog waste as venues for my picnics, I don't choose as guests or dates people who deliberately, openly, and unapologetically cause the room to smell like them. It interferes with my enjoyment of my food, the air, my pleasant thoughts. In a phrase, it grosses me out. If I don't get an abject apology, I conclude that he's not sorry at all, that he thinks it's quite normal (or that I didn't notice and he can get away with it); and this all prompts me to conclude that I can count on his fogging up the place during future encounters. So I'll avoid those encounters.

Again, it may be objected that this is just my own opinion, and says nothing about what general manners should be like. Maybe I'm outnumbered in this (one would think so, given the number of gas-clouds that have graced my table over the years). I submit that this doesn't matter. The point is that you don't know, and letting one fly is not a good way to find out.

It is the actor's benefit that is at stake here, not the victim's. The gas afficianado has a choice to make: the company of this interesting person, or the delight of expelling gas at will. The purpose of manners is to save you both the trouble of spoiling the social interaction.

If, on the other hand, you only wish to interact with other gasseurs, then by all means, pass, and do it as soon as possible in a new acquaintanceship; on this point, I will differ from traditionalists. The object of manners is not to deprive people like you of the kind of company you truly desire, and make you miserable by curbing behavior you enjoy sharing. It is to make sure that you don't deprive yourself of the company you value more than a particular kind of joke. It is for your benefit. The rest of us benefit too, in that we don't have to endure your stench, but that's secondary.

Notice that I don't appeal to some book of manners here. I don't appeal to custom, tradition, or the happiness of others. If there are lots of behaviors that seem to require some regulation, then we can scoop them all together and begin to make general claims. Obviously, I do think that's the case, though I've only covered one small set of behaviors today.