Thursday, August 20, 2009

Politeness in politics

On a personal level manners are something I value pretty highly and it's doubly useful in politics to be able to work with others without generating needless feuds over some sideshow about so and so being rude to such and such. It's difficult to avoid entirely but bullies, bores and braggarts are rarely successful politically.

Trotsky went so far as to argue that politeness wasn't just about keeping an organisation ticking over smoothly without problems, it was actually a political virtue in itself when he said; "Abusive language and swearing are a legacy of slavery, humiliation, and disrespect for human dignity, one’s own and that of other people."

I'm inclined to agree, although we're all human - naturally - so I wouldn't want to suggest I insist on the highest standards, I just prefer them.

Manners come into their own when you're talking to the general public about politics because whilst they are bound by no particular code the activist has to remain true to their task and put aside their desire to huff and puff if they feel offended.

I was collecting money for the firefighters during one of the Essex FBU disputes once when an older couple came up to me. The guy wanted to have a go at me and strikes in general and we had a little discussion in which he described striking firefighters as cowards. I replied that they weren't cowards "They're fucking heroes."

His eyes popped and then in horror he boomed "Don't you swear in front of my wife!" and they were gone. I don't take back the sentiment, obviously, but by swearing I lost any chance of persuading that guy that the strike was worth supporting. A little slip lost me my chance with him, oh well.

When knocking on doors today I had two contrasting experiences that made me wonder on the significance of manners in politics, if any.

The first was an older gentleman who told me flat out that he'd have nothing to do with the Greens. We got into a conversation where he told me what's the point of fighting in Afghanistan when we can't win and we're just killing "them poor buggers", and then there's the immigrants (pause while I waited for whatever was on his mind, which never came) and then those thieving bastards... those bloody MPs.

You could say it was a wide ranging conversation which was all very pleasant, included not a little laughter and ended with a hand shake and fond fair well. No political joy, but personally very pleasant.

The story round the corner was quite different, a woman came to the door already cross before she'd even seen me. Pre-cross if you like, her inner hive of wasps had already been poked with the sharp stick of life and I was the first passer-by.

She opened the door with a cheery "What the bloody hell!" and I prepared to have my buttocks handed to me with speed and force as I explained who I was and that I was canvassing the area. "I've got no time now," she barked and I prepared my retreat "but you can put me down as a definite, oh, and how do I join the party?"

She was obviously having a busy day and I don't begrudge her the fact she was having a strop but she was the rudest person I've encountered door knocking for a while by miles even though by my canvassing sheet she was a bit of a success. The general culture, at least in the places I go, is that you're polite to canvassers even when you despise their party - something I like to encourage out of self interest.

It was a good reminder, for me anyway, that whilst I respect manners more than possibly any other virtue in a person they don't necessarily go hand in hand with any sort of political affinity. Of course I knew this already, there's plenty of lefties I don't like and Tories that I do, but it's nice to be reminded of it now and then.


Matt Sellwood said...

How strange....I had a similar experience today while canvassing, too. Very rude and abrupt woman, whom I was about to put down as 'Not Green', until she told me that she always voted for us. Apparently, she's just rude!

It Will Come to Me said...

' whilst I respect manners more than possibly any other virtue in a person'

May I very politely inquire "Whose manners specifically"?

Jim Jepps said...

Well, it was something I thought about touching on but decided not to for space. It's clear that different people have different sets of manners.

In some company certain behaviours will be expected in others they will be abhorant.

Although I respect manners, I think on a personal level I'm fairly forgiving, particularly if I don't believe offense was intended but simply down to cultural or class differences.

It's just as well as I'd like people to be forgiving to me if I'm rude, which does happen - although usually if it does it's because I'm intending to be rude rather than causing accidental offense.

Unknown said...

Excellent post comrade. Politeness with the general public can be trickier than it seems. This is because of the tendency of an omnipresent minority to treat you like some kind of fair ground attraction, when your behind a stall or selling papers. You know the ones who come up ask you ridiculous questions, try to outrage your sensibilities, and generally use the fact that you are putting yourself out there to engage in some self-entertainment. The ones who are basically uninterested in what you've got to say but don't just fuck off like the rest of them.

On another matter i remember back in cambridge a much sturdier, and better organised comrade than me being appalled by response to a prospective buyer. He declined a copy of Socialist Appeal saying he had to run to catch a train. As he ran on towards the station i shouted 'your mum's a train'. Spur of the moment thing. My comrade told the full timers at the centre.

Nonetheless I was fucking good at selling papers, which reminds me of another point. Politeness is important. But sometimes its necessary to partially ignore the british publics over egged desire to remain undisturbed. Someiems you have to be a bit confident in pushing through the 'don't talk to me' barrier.


Jim Jepps said...

He told on you? Did you get detention? I don't think I'd want him next to me on a barricade monitoring to see if I ever made a mistake.

I think when you're giving out leaflets or, shudder, selling papers, close shudder, people understand the etiquette - you are allowed to be a bit more pushy. But chuggers take it too far and basically force you to be rude to them - which is rude in itself.

Adrian Windisch said...

I suspect that politeness is a way people can get along causing less offence.

Amy Kennedy said...

bad manners owl makes me LOL ;)