Legislating Exceptionless Manners

Call manners a contingent expression of various universal desires – on this account sex, eating and friendship are universal desires while polygamy or rape culture; eating at table or with utensils; associating only with ones own race or with all races are manners. But this won’t get us close enough – manners also have to relate more or less directly to our relationships with other persons. And so while agriculture or tax law or scientific funding are in one way or another contingent expressions of universal desires (to eat? to survive? to know?) they don’t count as manners.

For Americans. the Civil Rights Act remains a watershed moment in the attempt to legislate manners, and the success of the law (where “success” has its most uncontroversial meaning of “accomplishing what it set itself to do”) has given great confidence in the power of law to affect manners in a far reaching way. The success of the Civil Rights movement is taken by many groups both the justification and the promise of what they are trying to do. It is the proof their enterprise can work too, and not only work but work justice.

This approach to manners makes them not only legislated but also universal or exceptionless – i.e. they apply to all places and times without exception. You can’t go off into the hills and form your own discrimination club, nor are there special festivals of discrimination at various times which allow everyone to exclude other races from whatever they’re doing. We view such exceptions as negations of the very thing we are trying to do. Our sense is that if we allowed groups or festivals like this they could only be proofs that what we were trying to do was a lie that no one believed in – the exception would be taken as showing what we really wanted to do, while the rule would be only a pretense or affected show.

But this view of manners is itself contained under manners, since it is a contingent expression of the universal desires. It is a contingent fact that exceptions are seen as negations; they might just as well be seen as confirming the existing order. Inverting a given order in some place or time is simply one way of recognizing it as the given order. To put a theoretical spin on that claim, perhaps the universal desires that we experience in ourselves are not the sort of thing that can exist in a single exceptionless set of manners. Perhaps the rule is rational, but human beings are not entirely rational in the same sense – perhaps there is some dark and irrational force that needs to be given its due as well.

I’m not arguing for exceptions here, only pointing out that they rest on an implicit and contingent anthropology. We must think either that there are no dark and irrational forces within us or that practical reason can deal with at least some of them by universal prohibition. We either deny all dark urges or deny they have any legitimate expression. The first option seems utterly ruled out by experience, which leaves us having to address the problem of how we can be essentially constituted by something that has no legitimate expression. Christianity has a clear and consistent answer to this paradox though the idea of original sin, but the secular world has yet to hit on an adequate response to the problem. Freudianism at least recognizes the problem, though the secular world no longer believes in Freud any more than in original sin.

But we can only get by so long without a serious institutional response to the dark forces intrinsic to the person. Just what will take the place of the divine will and initial act of creation? It seems quaint to insist on the necessity of the cultured gentleman. We might get by for a while by seeing the dark forces as not dark at all – perhaps when we let the lion out of the cage it will turn into a kitten. This is unlikely – chances are are we’ll spend a few years trying to crush it with more and more Byzantine legal restrictions before it dawns on us to raise the question of why we are trying to repress it at all.

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