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Don't Be a Churl: Aikman Presents Coffeehouse on Manners

September 7th, 2010

By Barton Gingerich (originally published in PHC Herald, 9/3/10); picture by Michelle Stevens

CONTACT:  David Halbrook
Patrick Henry College
(540) 441-8722
OfficeOfCommunications@phc.edu

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PHC's Dr. David Aikman, former senior and foreign correspondent for TIME Magazine

“I am going to discuss something that’s seldom talked about since it’s nearly vanished—standards of personal decency,” began Dr. David Aikman to a crowded coffee house of over 50 attendants. Described as “our Distinguished 007” by Meredith Schultz, Aikman, a former TIME correspondent, argued for the cause of manners in an age of increasing vulgarity.

In an age ruled by the “cult of casual,” one is tempted to be a churl, defined by Aikman as one who is “coarse, vulgar, uncouth, surly gross...intrinsically unpleasant.” We should seek to be the opposite. If we start acting counter-culturally in this area, Aikman believes that we can effect a great change in ourselves and others.

“Start acting like everyone you meet is quite decent . . . treating people better than they deserve makes them act better than they are,” he said.

Indeed, authentic manners disarm the churl and raise the level of a conversation. Simple kindness gives us confidence in ourselves and eases relations with even the most difficult of souls. Otherwise, one is left on the churl’s own turf.

“If you wrestle a mud-wrestler in the mud, you’ll lose,” Aikman explained.

Whereas, when we use manners, we force people to respect themselves and maybe even respect us.

“Every human knows how to treat other human beings properly and that he ought to,” said Aikman.

Consideration, regardless of social standing, is a universal language. Even at the exquisite dinner party, others are grateful for anyone concerned with proper etiquette and who makes an effort to follow the norms of society.

Aikman provided several colorful examples showing how manners have saved his life. Whether it was revolutionaries in the area of Tajikistan (where they “didn’t have an orderly way of rioting”) or Philippine rebels with “violent looking rifles,” Aikman indicated that simple humane respect can achieve much in garnering safety and decency.

People may think you are naïve or old-fashioned, but that is better than being rude. In fact, Aikman remarked, “Being old-fashioned is an advantage in this business.”

Nevertheless, PHC’s prince of politeness offered several warnings. First, do not expect reciprocity. Just as Christ warned his disciples, men will revile us. Rudeness should still be returned with kindness. Second, do not trust in feelings for maintaining authentic good manners. Emotions are fickle, Aikman warned. Instead, manners are a matter of the will. They are not feelings, but habits (political theorists will be reminded of Alexis de Tocqueville’s commentary regarding mores). These habits may have a great result: a change in perspective. “People may very well like you and you may find that you like them.”

The entire presentation had a deliciously conservative overtone. In his introductory remarks, Aikman regretted the increasing barbarity across the globe—much like conservative giant Richard Weaver.

Weaver mourned the 20th century’s debased and unlimited views on entertainment, war, politics, and all other human endeavors. Likewise, as alumnus Shane Ayers pointed out in the Question and Answer session, manners presuppose a social order.

To be polite, we must have an ordered society (much to the approval of Russell Kirk, we can be sure). The birth of manners can be traced back into the age of aristocracy. We must ask, then, if manners can survive the democratic age.

There is hope, however, as Aikman reminded his audience that human nature has not changed in a world of nuclear power and Internet. Our manners and other habits are capable of making a change in our souls as well as those of others.

In truth, manners should spring from the truth that we have never met a mere mortal (as C.S. Lewis has said). Churlishness is a failure of imagination. We as evangelicals speak often of “having your heart in the right place” and “heart attitudes.” Perhaps the link between the external and internal is more direct than we think.