Qwertyman No. 25: Courtesy Ca. 2023

Qwertyman for Monday, January 23, 2023

THIS TOPIC wouldn’t have occurred to me to write about if I hadn’t come across—in my meanderings online as a collector of antiquarian books and papers—a copy of a slim pamphlet published by the University of the Philippines Press in 1936, titled “Courtesy Appeals by the President’s Committee on Courtesy.” But as soon as I saw that title, I knew I had to get that pamphlet and reflect on the observance (most likely in the breach) of its prescriptions today.

To be honest, I never even heard of a “committee on courtesy” in UP. Neither, as a former student and professor, did I ever instinctively attach the word “courtesy” to UP, although I will not agree to any collective condemnation of “Iskos” and “Iskas” as boorish and uncultured. Granted, UP lore is rich with tales of what we’ll call youthful insolence toward their elders, in ways that would make even millennials cringe. (Who was that young poet who, in a writers’ workshop, supposedly stole a famous lady poet’s underwear—don’t ask me how—and strung it up a flagpole or hung it on a line, prompting her friend—another professor known for her fiery temper—to curse the laughing fellows: “I wish your mothers had aborted you!”) 

Meekness may not be one of a UP student’s strongest suits, because we teach them to assert themselves. But we also teach them to criticize or comment with style and intelligence, as when a young wit responded to a customary recitation of then President Carlos P. Romulo’s kilometric list of honorary degrees by saying, “Why, Mr. President, you have more degrees than a thermometer!” (In fairness to CPR, that fellow went on to an illustrious career accompanied by much—and some say self-generated—pomp and circumstance.)

Courtesy, of course, is not about sticking out but about staying in—behaving oneself for social acceptability and harmony, living up to someone else’s expectations by observing a strict code of do’s and don’ts. At least that’s how it was appreciated in the 1930s, when President Jorge Bocobo created the committee that came out with the prescriptions in the pamphlet. Although he served as one of UP’s most hardworking and effective presidents—someone who pushed UP students to go out and serve the masses—Bocobo was also known to be a rather prudish disciplinarian. He had been on the committee that censured Jose Garcia Villa for publishing his “obscene” and “ultramodernistic” poem “Song of Ripeness,” leading to Villa’s suspension and hastening his departure for more liberal America. He also cut down on the popular student dances that Rafael Palma allowed, and enforced the rule for student uniforms. When Guillermo Tolentino presented his design for the Oblation statue, Bocobo had one important comment: protect its modesty with a fig leaf, which was done. Not surprisingly, although again a bit too simply, he was called “the gloomy dean” by the editorialists of the time.

In 1936, when the pamphlet came out, Jorge Bocobo was almost midway through his presidency (1934-39). I learned that 8,000 copies were printed to be handed out to all students, and teachers were required to discuss its contents—all 20 pages of them—in class.

Some of its prescriptions are entirely understandable for the period:

“A young lady of social position does not go to a ball without a chaperon.”

“When a gentleman is introduced to a lady, he does not extend his hand first. It is the lady’s place to show whether she wants to shake hands or not.”

“When a lady leaves a gentleman to whom she has been introduced, she never says she is ‘glad to have met him’ or that she ‘hopes to see him again.’’

Some would be perfectly applicable today:

“Annoying the ladies by staring at them or making remarks about them as they pass cannot be countenanced.”

“Avoid being a bore by talking too much. Be a sympathetic listener.”

Some would be difficult to enforce:

“It would be nicer if gentlemen should remove their hats on entering a building.”

“Do not wear a tuxedo at daytime.”

“(Do not) thrust the individual knife into a butter dish or the individual fork into a pickle dish.”

“Bananas are peeled into a plate and taken with the fork.”

I was amused, as many of you would be, but these social commandments (yes, they were far more than “appeals,” and students and faculty were disciplined for disobeying them) invited me to wonder how we look at courtesy today or even think about it, let alone practice it. Thanks to the anonymity provided by the Internet and to a toxic political environment, rudeness if not obnoxiousness seem to have become the norm. It’s almost customary to assume that the other fellow is uninformed, hostile, stupid, or just plain wrong, and I have to confess to thinking this of many people I encounter for the first time, especially online. 

I’ve been on the receiving end of these assumptions as well. An expat American—a Trumper—once tried to convince me that I knew nothing about America, as did an expat Brit who lectured me about the monarchy like I’d never read a book (I could’ve lectured him back on Elizabethan revenge tragedy, but he could have been just a regular fellow who didn’t know anything about me, and why should he, so I desisted and let it slide).

Courtesy today clearly involves more than etiquette or protocol, more than observing antiquated codes of behavior requiring you to use this fork or that spoon. It’s more a matter of attitude toward other people, of assuming them worthy of respect and an intelligent and civil response (until they prove otherwise, as many inevitably do, especially in politics). 

Unfortunately we also too easily conflate courtesy with external manners, with opening doors for ladies (which I still do, although my wife Beng sometimes has to remind me there’s a door in front of us). On a higher order of behavior, aren’t profligacy and ostentation extreme forms of discourtesy to a people struggling to make ends meet? Do arrogance and impunity invite respect, or resentment and disdain?

What could a “Courtesy Appeals” for 2023 read like? “Do not waste the people’s hard-earned money” seems like a good place to start.

(Some factoids mentioned here come from an unpublished, unofficial history of UP. You can check them out against an official history published recently by the UP Press.)

Flashback No. 3: The Anti-Rant Rant

Penman for Monday, August 6, 2007 

(This went viral when I first came out with it five years ago, and I’m republishing it here to show that, hey, we haven’t changed one bit!)

IT COULD be that I’m just getting old, but lately I’ve been dismayed and depressed by the state of manners on the Internet. I help moderate a message board (www.philmug.ph) that now has over 9,000 members, and I’m a member myself of several more such virtual hangouts devoted to everything from electronic gadgets like iPods and Palm PDAs to fountain pens and heritage conservation. (The one thing I avoid, perhaps surprisingly, is any public forum made up of writers and wannabe writers, for reasons you’ll find shortly.)

Our Apple users and fans club (that’s basically what it is) has been a generally pleasant and helpful group, ever ready to dispense free and quick advice about everything from the difference between SATA and PATA drives and between FireWire 400 and USB 2.0 (and, of course, between Mac OS X and Windows Whatever). But some weeks on the board can be more vexatious than others, and last week was one of those, with an inordinate number of people, it seemed to me, venting their assorted resentments, rages, and anxieties, caring little if their rants produced or provoked similarly negative vibes in others.

Never mind what those specific issues were; they matter little to anyone but geeks. It wasn’t the questions or issues that disturbed me so much as the way they were raised and pursued—often with undisguised meanness, if not malice aforethought, and with no concessions to diplomacy, compromise, and good-natured humor. Indeed, what used to be the domain and the art of ironic humor has been taken over by sarcasm and verbal battery.

It isn’t just on this message board I moderate, either; it’s all over the Internet, this creeping outbreak of ill will and gutter behavior that ironically seems to afflict those with the money and the education to buy computers and get DSL service. Over at another forum I frequent—devoted to the arcane pursuit of fountain pen collecting—two grown men were bashing each other a couple of weeks ago over, believe it or not, the exact configuration of solid-gold 1940s Sheaffer pens. Here’s how part of that discussion went:

“I would be most interested in your assertion that in general, a sample size of 0.1% of the subject population cannot produce a statistically significant result. Merely characterizing a survey’s characteristics as ‘lunacy’ without providing a shred of supporting math is, to put it mildly, uncompelling, and your embedded assertion that the ratio of sample size to population is the determinant of statistical significance calls into question your grasp of statistical theory.”

That, at least, was an intelligent and even illuminating if occasionally pungent debate. (The other side responded: ‘Your penchant for avoiding the issue being discussed and branching off on some tangent is pretty typical of your discourse. Try and stay focused.”) Most “flame wars”—as these long-distance quarrels are called—employ considerably blunter language, chiefly because, I suspect, the antagonists possess the linguistic skills of ten-year-olds, and in many cases are just a bit older. Endearments like “Moron!” routinely get exchanged in these flame wars, which erupt with the spontaneity of a scuffle in the schoolyard during recess, usually between boys trying to sound like men, and also usually over the presumption of some exotic expertise, although I’ve yet to witness a flame war over prescriptions to end global hunger.

It’s in the nature of the Internet, of course, to host these brutal and often unrefereed skirmishes. Some surfers see the Internet as an open and wide frontier where no rules obtain and manners don’t matter. The Web’s anonymity encourages boorishness, recklessness, and other behavior that might land you in court, in jail, or in the hospital in the real world. People tend to shoot their mouths off and say the cruelest things online because there’s no sense of public accountability. Slinging mud from behind an alias, you can’t get sued, you can’t get slugged, and your mother won’t even know.

Some people mistakenly presume that what’s said on the Internet will stay there. (Well, here’s proof that it won’t; there’s no such thing as an online whisper—and, surprise, print still matters.) I’ll bet anything that the people in my forum who feel alluded to in this piece will be caterwauling again tomorrow, to screech that I dragged their private plaints and torments out into the open—as if posting a message that could reach 9,000 members weren’t public enough.

Now, we didn’t need the Internet to realize that the world is full of idiots and bigots, and that most of us, yours truly included, will occasionally be a bit of both, given the right astral configuration and the way we wake up in the morning. One thing I happen to be openly and proudly biased about is Apple and nearly anything that rolls out of its Cupertino, CA plant. (And yes, friends, I’ll be first in line for the iPhone when they release it here next year.) But when Apple drops the ball—as, like any other big company, it will from time to time—there will be no louder complainers than we the faithful, who should justly feel abandoned and betrayed. So admittedly we’re not immune to these seizures of what will seem to others a silly passion, and now and then we might even raise our voices in defense of a block of plastic.

But that’s entertainment, and it has little to do with the witless vitriol that I’ve been catching around the Web—again, not only here, and not only now. Years ago, almost when the Internet was just beginning to take root in this country, I joined an online group of Filipino writers based here and in the US, and for a time that exchange proved useful and cordial. But as the group grew in size and variety, the chemistry changed; one day I found myself being savaged by a fellow I’d never met and never heard of, for some strange reason I couldn’t figure out. It wasn’t worth the aggravation; I had better things to do than to explain or defend my writing and myself to complete strangers, and I swore from then on to limit my Web time to things I could enjoy as a respite from literature, which I reserved to my private practice.

But even in literature—and especially in its newest form, the blog—it seems that ranting has taken over prose and poetry. Many blogs are amusing, a few are highly informative and thought-provoking, but a vast multitude barely get beyond retching, whining, venting, cursing, and putting everybody else down.

Aside from the pervasive meanness, I’ve been bothered by another recurrent note in the message traffic: the brazen sense of entitlement that many young people seem to possess and brandish, almost like a weapon. Over at PhilMUG, we’ve had an 18-year-old brashly demanding that someone give him/her (on the Web, where people use pseudonymous nicknames or “handles”, you never know) a free computer. “Gimme a Mac!” cried this newbie in his/her very first post. “I damn need one!”

In this “gimme, gimme, gimme” culture, the world owes everyone a Lamborghini, and people don’t need to work or suffer for the things they want. All they have to do is scream like they did for their baby food, and the object of their desire should appear at their feet and make mewling sounds. If it doesn’t, then that’s good enough reason for another rant.

Forgive me if I suspect that these are people—many of them in their surly mid-twenties—who’ve never been truly whacked by life over the head, who’ve never laid their lives on the line for a cause larger than themselves, who’ve never stared into the barrel of a gun, who’ve never spent a day in jail, and whose daily crises consist of having to choose between the mocha latte and the cappuccino.

Thankfully, some of them grow up. I once had a student who kept loudly complaining that the Palanca Awards for Literature were rigged, because he joined them year after year and never won a thing. Surely there was some grand conspiracy to deny him his due. When I could no longer stand his whining, I lost my temper in public (think of it as doing a Pinatubo after 600 years of dormancy) and suggested to him, perhaps a bit too sharply, that the simpler reason for his spectacular string of losses was to be found in himself. (I could’ve added—meaning no offense to the generous Palancas—that with the number of prize categories open at that time, any fool and his dog was bound to win one sooner or later, if you just submitted enough entries with the consistency of a parking-ticket dispenser.) Well, either my sermon challenged his spirit or his number was up, but he soon won a Palanca, and I was truly happy for him; I doubt that he’ll be thinking the same sullen thoughts now.

A few weeks ago, I had occasion to discuss the poetry of Anne Sexton in class, and if you know anything about her—apart from her plaintively powerful poetry—it would be the inescapable fact that she committed suicide, in 1974. A beautiful and brilliant woman, Sexton had grappled with her demons all her life, and took to poetry as a means of taming them. She would even write that “Poetry, after all, is the opposite of suicide.” That she ultimately took her own life doesn’t detract from the quality and the legacy of her poetry. (In “Wanting to Die,” she would say that “… Suicides have a special language. / Like carpenters they want to know which tools. / They never ask why build.”) This leads me to think that those who can write poetry, do; those who can’t, rant.

Can’t the world use a little kvetching, however inartistic? Sure, it can—it had better, or otherwise we’ll end up wallowing in treacly (and very possibly shallow) good feelings. But there’s a difference between the ranter who just rants, and the ranter who disses the world then picks up a chisel or a compass to change it—or a pen, to write beautifully and even blissfully of one’s pain, ultimately to transform it into something more valuable and enduring than this season’s hemline or tomorrow’s gadget.