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Friday, August 14, 2020
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Home News Manners matter in the age of Covid

Manners matter in the age of Covid

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CROWDING, violence and littering, from London’s parks to Dorset’s beaches, should not be treated as exceptional expressions of a long lockdown. They are symptomatic of a longer-term collapse in British manners and social responsibility.

Lockdown will soon be over, but social irresponsibility will continue. We are normalising rudeness, selfishness, poor service, invasions of personal space, fouling of public spaces and casual violence.

These are not just local inconveniences: they are threats to civilisation. We cannot have nice things, find stress relief in public spaces, seek friends among strangers, go for walks without stepping in urine and faeces, let our children run free without being accosted by loose dogs.

Covid will be back, and Britain will be amongst the worst affected. Why? A collapse in manners and responsibility. Compare Japan: the lowest rate of Covid deaths in the developed world, despite similar lack of preparedness, PPE, and tests. Japan ended lockdown more than a month ago, after 850 deaths due to Covid. Britain remains locked down, with more than 50,000 deaths.

Societies that are ill-mannered are more likely to be locked down. I am not advocating for lockdown – that’s not my point. For the record, my preferred policy was always test, track, and quarantine as locally as possible. My point here is that lockdown is inevitable if people are not civil.

The government warned us back in February: if we cannot make voluntary measures work, the government would need to get authoritarian. As late as mid-March, the government was trying to contain the pandemic with personal responsibility (wash your hands; self-isolate if you have symptoms). The many problems with that policy included the impossibility of knowing when to self-isolate if you can’t get tested and you’re not symptomatic. The government’s lack of preparedness aside, the people could not be trusted. As I warned at the time (mid-March): ‘Relying on voluntary self-isolation alone is naïve: people cheat.’ Indeed: a majority of Britons already admitted to not washing their hands as prescribed. They weren’t just rebelling against the government of 2020: declining hygiene has been reported for years. 

So, Britons couldn’t be trusted, so they had to be locked down. British readers might be taking this personally, so let’s make fun of Californians. The State of California ordered the earliest and severest lockdown: Why? Because Californians can’t be trusted: they’re in the top ten rudest American states. They’re selfish and irresponsible, despite (and because of) their progressive rhetoric. One result is that they are amongst the least charitable Americans, though Americans are amongst the most charitable nationalities. Another result is that they are reckless drivers. Californians need to be locked down because they are too risky.

California’s Governor Gavin Newsom (no relation, note the spelling) aired the possibility of relaxing the lockdown in late May, just as the Black Lives Matter protests broke out. The protesters were given free rein to disobey lockdown, social distancing, face masks and laws in general. The infection rate climbed. While the Governor celebrated the protesters’ non-compliance, he escalated the lockdown for the rest of us. For instance, he mandated face masks in public, not just places of business.

Yet most Californians do not comply. Many businesses do not enforce anything (they want customers). Most Californians do not wear face masks except in shops. Some are sceptical of the efficacy of face masks (in fact, the science is clear: face masks reduce transmission at little cost). Californians can’t be trusted with social distancing either. In some areas, particularly around the San Francisco Bay Area, walking into people has always been an expression of empowerment.

Now that I’ve made examples of Californians, Britons should he embarrassed to hear that Californians are shaking their heads at British behaviour. Crowding, civil disobedience and stabbings on Bournemouth beach made news as far away as Australia. Visitors from Birmingham and London were telling Dorset’s officials that Durdle Door was their local beach. One spat on a councillor who was managing a road closure (spitting is particularly loathsome during a pandemic). At the same time, Londoners were crowding, urinating and defecating in public parks. Illegal street parties in South London are now routine, as is violence against police who show up to close them down. This will get worse with the re-opening of bars and pubs on July 4: that’s the official expectation. 

You might think that we should focus on crime, not  bad manners, but good research has always shown a correlation between bad manners and crime, even violent crime. Let go of manners and you let go of civilisation.

How did we get to this? The rot started with the ‘permissive society’ of the 1960s. Uncontrolled immigration since the 1990s has exacerbated it, as brilliantly explained by Douglas Murray. It makes no difference if all immigrants are virtuous: immigration that is too fast and too numerous undermines prior norms.

Worse, the dogma of multiculturalism instructed Britons to forget their norms and embrace anything foreign. Social justice warriors found unfairness in anything traditional. Feminists saw sexism in male deference towards women. Just being white can be touted as offensive. Is it any wonder that Britons don’t know how to behave? The BBC now categorises the countryside as racist. 

Is it any wonder that urban visitors treat the countryside with disrespect?

The progressive political imperative to change everything doesn’t help. Worse is the cultural Marxist imperative to tear everything down. This is illustrated by recent vandalism of statues for supposedly promoting values that are no longer acceptable. By extension, the past is always wrong, and no heritage is good. Truly, previous generations normalised much that we now reject, but rejecting the past is to throw out the baby with the bath water. Much of the past is worthy of nostalgia, such as low crime, social cohesion, community, and manners.

How do we escape the collapse of civilisation? We need politicians who will stand up for our virtuous past. We need politicians who will not jump on the latest social justice bandwagon, such as Black Lives Matter, but will reject its vices, such as reverse racism.

Britain’s restoration will need more than rhetoric. The government needs to restructure our employment and welfare, to punish vices and reward virtues. Fashionable employers are firing people who tweet ‘white lives matter,’ while Cambridge University promoted a professor of post-colonial studies after she tweeted ‘white lives don’t matter.’ Where employers are not corrected by political condemnation, the government should remove tax breaks or public funding (the latter is an easy solution to the blatant biases in academia). Where the government has no direct financial leverage, it should prosecute employers for unequal interpretations of racism and free speech.

Outside private employment, the government has direct opportunities to tie welfare and benefits to public behaviour. Were you on benefits when tearing down that statue? Lose your benefits until you shape up.

Then there’s law enforcement. If we don’t enforce existing laws, we can’t expect rule-following in general. If our police stand by while Extinction Rebellion occupies London’s bridges, then expect general disrespect of private spaces too, and no hope of controlling a pandemic.

Not only do we need to enforce existing laws, we need new laws to catch up with less virtuous society. For instance, in the good old days we could expect dog walkers to leash their dogs (it’s just good manners; nobody else knows how ‘good’ your dog is). British law does not require leashing; it criminalises ‘nuisance’ dogs. But ‘nuisance’ is impossible to prove in law until a dog savages a child. A leashing law would be good for social interaction and public health (yes, animals can transmit Covid).

I realise that new laws sometimes infringe freedoms, but nuisance should not be a freedom. Moreover, we live in desperate times. Remember the earlier point: ill-mannered societies need more regulation. To frame the same point a different way: ill-mannered societies deserve less freedom.

If we can restore a mannered society, we can loosen the reins. A mannered society is a society with more freedom.

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Bruce Newsome
Bruce Newsome is a lecturer in international relations at the University of California Berkeley and an expert on global security risks, international conflict and counterterrorism. He is @riskyscientistson Parler.

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