Manners and Morality

IN an age of global interdependence, Moody's Diner in Waldoboro, Maine, has a lesson for the world. It's not that the old metal stools bolted to the floor at the long lunch counter host an international crowd. Quite the reverse: Judging by the pickup trucks out front and the plaid woolen shirts inside, most of its customers are locals. And these folks aren't overly concerned with fancy table manners. The last time I stopped by, I noticed that the laminated countertop was worn through to the undercoat in little half-moons at regular intervals between the stools - the work of decades of forearms, placed squarely on the counter at every meal.

That, of course, causes the keepers of conventions to recoil in disgust. ``Elbows off the table!'' they've been snapping across America's kitchen tables for so long that, in some quarters, their admonition has attained the status of a universal moral precept. Which, of course, it's not. German children, for example, are taught to eat with both hands on the table. Children in other cultures learn to eat reclining, or to pick up food with their fingers, or to suck rice noisily from a bowl. Does that mean they're immoral? Obviously not. It simply means they adhere to a different set of manners.

And that suggests a great distinction our shrinking world needs to make: the distinction between manners and morals. Manners are important; they smooth the channels of discourse. But they aren't morals. Assuming that matters of dress, speech, hairdo, and politeness are moral indicators, we polarize ourselves into opposing camps. For some, the mere appearance of a dark suit and short sideburns says, ``Corrupt, fat-cat businessman!'' For others, the hint of spiked hair and multiple earrings says, ``Ne'er-do-well freeloader!'' Behind such labeling pulses a moral opprobrium, which, rather than seeing such mannerisms as matters of social convention, pigeonholes them as evidence of evil.

What's that got to do with global interdependence? Simply this: As humanity moves into the 21st century, the world's cultures are inevitably going to come into closer contact. And that, as our more forward-looking thinkers keep reminding us, will require a newfound respect for diversity, a tolerance for widely different modes of living.

Unless we're alert to the distinction between manners and morals, that demand for tolerance risks being misinterpreted. On the one hand, it can lead to a steady erosion of ethical standards - propelled by the notion that, since we must respect diversity at all costs, every sort of moral behavior, however egregious, must be welcomed. On the other hand, it can provoke a severe cultural backlash, in which anything smacking of diversity is shunned in the name of maintaining a high ethical standard. Both these strains are already showing up on some American campuses and in various churches.

One thing is clear: However much the world changes, there will always be a clear distinction between right and wrong - and a clear responsibility to live by that distinction. That's what ethics is all about, and without ethics the world won't survive. The challenge, then, is summed up in the following question: How does a world maintain its ethical standard and continue to embrace diversity?

Moody's metaphor just may hold a key. It reminds us to distinguish manners from morals. It tells us we can open ourselves to a vast array of cultural habits. And it promises we can do so without having to compromise our morals.

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