LET us be good cosmopolitans and offer sociological explanations rather than moral judgments about students having sex during the day in high schools, as reported in the media.
Sociology discerns connections, and there may be one between the fact that teenagers are relaxing from academic rigours by enjoying sex in the school auditorium and the fact that Americans will soon be able to watch pornography on their cellphones and video iPods in public.
The connection is this: many people have no notion of propriety when in the presence of other people, because they are not actually in the presence of other people, even when they are in public.
With everyone chatting on cellphones when not floating in iPod land, "this is an age of social autism, in which people just cannot see the value of imagining their impact on others". We are entertaining ourselves into inanition.
(There are websites for people with Internet addiction. Think about that.)
And multiplying technologies of portable entertainments will enable "limitless self-absorption", which will make people solipsistic, inconsiderate and anti-social. Hence manners are becoming unmannerly in this "age of lazy moral relativism combined with aggressive social insolence".
So says Ms Lynne Truss in her latest trumpet blast of a book, Talk To The Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness Of The World Today, Or Six Good Reasons To Stay Home And Bolt The Door.
Her previous wail of despair was Eats, Shoots And Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach To Punctuation, which established her as — depending on your sensibility — a comma and apostrophe fascist (the liberal sensibility) or a plucky constable combating anarchy (the conservative sensibility).
Good puctuation, Ms Truss says, is analogous to good manners because it treats readers with respect.
"All the important rules," she writes, "surely boil down to one: Remember you are with other people; show some consideration."
Manners, which have been called "quotidian ethics", arise from real or — this, too, is important in lubricating social frictions — feigned empathy.
"People are happier when they have some idea of where they stand and what the rules are," says Ms Truss.
But today’s entitlement mentality, which is both a cause and a consequence of the welfare state, manifests itself in the attitude that it is all right to do whatever one has a right to do.
Which is why acrimony has enveloped a coffee shop on Chicago’s affluent North Side, where the proprietor posted a notice that children must "behave and use their indoor voices". The proprietor, battling what he calls an "epidemic" of antisocial behaviour, told the media parents protesting against his notice "have a very strong sense of entitlement".
A thoroughly modern parent, believing children must be protected from feelings injurious to self-esteem, says: "Johnny, the fact that you did something bad does not mean you are bad for ding it."
We have, MS Truss thinks, "created people who will not stand to be corrected in any way."
One writer on manners has argued that a nation’s greatness is measured not only by obedience of laws but also by "obedience to the unenforceable".
But unneforcement of manners can be necessary. Because manners are means of extending respect, especially to strangers, this question arises: Do manners and virtue go together?
Ms Truss thinks so, despite the possibility of "bloodstained dictators who had exquisite table manners and never used their mobile phones in a crowded train compartment to order mass executions".
Actually, manners are the practice of a virtue. That virtue is called civility, a word related — as a foundation is related to a house — to the word "civilisation".
~ by George Will, a columnist syndicated by the Washington Post Writers Group.