Saturday, July 7, 2012

Missed Manners

After my blog post earlier this week in which I compared Liberal parliamentarian Sophie Mirabella to Jane Austen’s delightful Miss Jane Bennet, I’ve been thinking again about standards of behaviour, where they come from, and what they mean. I’ve also been thinking about how Ms Mirabella is actually a mishmash of all of the worst qualities of all five Bennet sisters, but I’ll leave that one for the Austen aficionados. 

So what is the ultimate authority on manners? Who arbitrates good behaviour and differentiates it from poor behaviour? How are these standards communicated through a community, and how are they enforced?
Should we defer to the teachings of American Judith Martin, better known as Miss Manners? I’d mention her age, and suggest that perhaps her preferred style might be out of vogue, but I’m sure she wouldn’t approve of me talking about a lady’s age.

"You can deny all you want that there is etiquette, and a lot of people do in everyday life. But if you behave in a way that offends the people you're trying to deal with, they will stop dealing with you...There are plenty of people who say, 'We don't care about etiquette, but we can't stand the way so-and-so behaves, and we don't want him around!' Etiquette doesn't have the great sanctions that the law has. But the main sanction we do have is in not dealing with these people and isolating them because their behaviour is unbearable."
Australia has our own maven of manners, the indomitable Miss June Dally-Watkins. Around the same age as Miss Manners, Miss Dally-Watkins started Australia's first finishing school for young ladies in the 1950s, and still makes occasional media appearances to talk about etiquette, deportment and 'shoulds'. There are many many 'shoulds' in the world of manners, yet probably many more should-nots.

I have no idea what Miss Dally-Watkins would think of Ms Mirabella's performance on QandA, but I have a fair idea what she thinks of Kyle Sandilands and Jackie O. I'd guess she would dismiss Vile Kyle as absolutely beneath her contempt. His entire existence is a should-not. 

Jackie O would attract fierce criticism for tolerating Kyle's appalling behaviour, and for associating with him. The contrast is even more dramatic against the backdrop of Jackie O's gig hosting Channel Ten's Australian Princess, a reality show in which a selection of less-than-genteel young ladies were transformed into pretentious young ladies with near perfect manners. This was dramatic irony at its best.

But these are, of course, personal judgments, made with only my own sense of etiquette to guide me. There are some authorities which have to make official determinations: ACMA has found Kyle Sandilands to have crossed their line, and has imposed additional conditions on 2DAY-FM's broadcasting licence in an attempt to control Kyle's personal imperative to shock. 

Clearly, 2DAY-FM management has been willing to overlook Kyle's disregard of social standards to keep the money flowing.  They have implemented their own safety measures to ensure Kyle can be 'dumped' before anything too offensive goes to air, but against what standards do they measure  'too offensive'?So desperate are they to keep Kyle on air, they have taken ACMA's decision to the Appeals Tribunal today to have he conditions diluted. The SMH reported: 

Southern Cross Austereo's barrister, Richard Cobden, SC, said in response to Sandilands's behaviour, the broadcaster had taken ''remedial action'' to prevent further breaches, including a 30-second delay and two censors to warn him if he was likely to cross the line. All staff involved in producing and presenting programs had undergone training and Sandilands had been counselled.

But Richard Lancaster, SC, for the authority, said the watchdog wanted the condition to apply 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The condition states ''program content must not offend generally accepted standards of decency … having regard to the demographic characteristics of the audience of the relevant program''.

Wouldn't it be cheaper and simpler to employ a radio host who can be both entertaining and controversial, and can also be trusted to use common sense to censor himself? Or is Kyle's risky on-air behaviour the key to his success?

My friend Jillian suggested that one of the factors that determine standards is celebrity: if enough influential celebrities exhibit a certain behaviour, it can transition quickly from fringe to mainstream. Just look at the way glasses frames have changed over the past 40 years, or trace the origin of almost any fad you care to name, from miniskirts to destination weddings. 

Standards do change: Are the repeated behaviours of Kyle and Jackie O - Kyle crossing the line, and Jackie giggling - influencing standards and behaviours in their audience? Do young male listeners think its okay to call women "fat slags" when they disagree with them? Are  women learning that the appropriate response to hearing a man call a woman names is to emit an embarrassed giggle?

That's the only argument I would need to reject 2DAY-FM's appeal and uphold ACMA's ruling.

Technology is playing a larger role too. Social media provides the means for people to indulge in behaviours - often abusive - that they wouldn't dream of trying in a real life situation. Federal MP Andrew Laming (@AndrewLamingMP) has a reputation for questionable use of Twitter and Facebook, being provocative, at times rude. Failed Sydney politician Mark Sharma (vos2135) is abusive on Twitter, although he cleans up his act during any campaign in which he's a candidate. Dare to contribute an opinion under the #auspol hashtag and you should expect to be attacked for it, by people you don't know. 

In one of the truly great moments of Twitter irony, Rupert Murdoch complained how hard it was to have a civil conversation on Twitter, amidst all of the ignorant, viscious abuse. Is this a sign of social decay, Murdoch asks. Thousands of responses included suggestions about the risks of stones and glass houses, that pot and kettle have met, and that finally, Rupert is reaping what he has sown. 

And I'm still no closer to understanding standards of behaviour, other than to suggest that in most cases these days, the majority rules. Miss Manners, ACMA and even 5S are all about imposing external standards. I'd like to think that we each have our internal gauge of what is acceptable.

In the absence of anything better, The Golden Rule (Do Unto Others) seems appropriate. It's a rule, a guideline, a commandment in every major religion, it has credibility in psychology and sociology, and it's common sense if you don't try to complicate it. 

Let's all try that one for a while.


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