Saturday, February 2, 2013

On Verbal Chivalry

No one likes being ordered around. The reason for this truth varies from a humble belief in one's own independency to raging and irrational egoism. Yet to embrace self-government is not to absolve oneself of any and all duties. Most people understand this and embrace their responsibilities to others, if not necessarily with gusto then with fatalism. In the ideal performance of the social play, however, neither the necessity nor the principle persists at the forefront. I say this for two reasons. 

First, no one likes being reminded of a bare necessity to perform a deed. No one likes being reminded they must do something under penalty of any kind, be that pain monetary, corporal, or what have you. Who likes being bossed around by someone with no authority? Second, no one likes being bossed around by someone with authority either. Does anyone care for a reminder that he ought to help his parents out of filial piety, or show up at work to honor his contract? All such prompts smack of moralizing or authoritarianism no matter how righteous the principle and equitable the exchange. It is simply man's nature, call it unruly or liberal, that any hint of compunction ups his dander. We accept duties, but we don't like to have them throw in our face. We engage in exchange, but we don't like being hounded by takers eager for their pound of flesh.

The solution is a certain circumlocution, a tacit appeal to virtue in the form of a question. Let us call it verbal chivalry.* For example, the parent or the boss knows he can invoke certain rights and even make just demands under an unspoken principle, but he chooses to make a request. In doing so he chooses to emphasize the individual's sovereignty and not servility, to treat him as an equal, or even superior, despite his legal or moral claim. Such an exchange has several beneficial effects. The first is a liberalizing one, encouraging people to interact as equals who willfully choose the good instead of like bartering traders or servants fearing punishment. Second, one develops a sense of gratitude rather than entitlement; how much sweeter is that freely given? Lastly, this exchange allows someone to choose the principle on which he acts. Someone might grant your request not because you have leverage but because he believes you to be a kind or good person. Leaving room for people to act out of pure and simple affection seems a fine way of preserving it.

This seems far preferable to, by accident or with purpose, wagging our fingers at each other.

* Credit for the phrase to Theodore Dalrymple in The Salisbury Review. [Link]

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