Already I have pissed a whole bunch of people off because they don’t identify with those gender pronouns, but society hasn’t actually replaced them with anything as an honorific that is not gender based, or that covers genders other than the genetic binary. I guess the reason for that I will be addressing in later paragraphs.
When the German tribes encountered the Roman’s for the first time, they brought back the report that their interaction could only end in blood. The reason? The German people invested everything in their word; their given word was the basis of all contracts, business, marriage, alliance, allegiance and any other form of relationship. The Romans had a profession, called lawyers, who existed for the sole purpose of allowing you to pledge your word, derive the benefits from the agreement made, and then renege on it due to tricks of your lawyer.
In British Parliamentary tradition, we refer to the elected members as the “Honourable member from (whatever riding)”. There was a time it meant just that, honour was required of a man to operate in public life, and dishonourable conduct cost you the ability to do business, and would cause you to resign your elected office or appointed office rather than let your personal dishonour taint your office. This was not codified in law because they didn’t conceive a day would come when a person in public life would choose position over public honour.
Society was more polite for a reason; if you failed to be polite, you might well be called out to answer for your slurs with sword or pistol. Slurs or slanders were not something you could drag out in the courts, or skirt the edges of the law to avoid punishment for, if you insulted someone seriously enough, you could legally be killed for it. There were limits to your speech having nothing to do with law, and everything to do with societies understanding of the requirements of respect for public life to exist.
My grandfather addressed everyone as Sir or Ma’am unless he knew their names. This was in no way subservient, as he was a proud man, but one who treated each and every individual with a certain degree of respect until and unless they demonstrated through their deeds (not their dress, or property) that they deserved either more or less. When he chanced upon two protesters burning the Canadian flag at the Cenotaph commemorating his fallen brethren (actual brethren, his brother’s in fact), he demonstrated with seventy six year old fists that a Sgt of the Grenadier Guards was easily the master of any number of gutter punks, because respect for the dead was enforced by the living, and instruction was brutal as it was swift.
When I joined the army I became aware slowly of the way we operated. Those you knew well you addressed with the most horrible obscenities cheerfully, while those you did not know you addressed with careful and formal courtesy. We were not modern society, we were a slice of another age, where honour was considered to be a real, important, and defensible thing, and where lethal force was assumed to be a potential in every interaction. Courtesy was given to every individual as part of the culture, and only those whom you had close personal bonds with could be treated with anything less than that formal respect.
Personal space was treated the same way, you gave everyone their personal space, because intruding into it was an attack. Drill Instructors or senior NCO would only intrude into this space to make a point about exactly how upset they were about a particular infraction. Even then, careful lines were drawn where the competence of an individual could be questioned, but never, EVER their honour, or their family, for the soldier would be permitted and expected to defend his or her name, even against their own officers and NCO’s. Without honour, you could not be a worthy soldier, so defending your honour was a soldier’s right.
Courtesy was the culture (along with violence, alcohol, stress, and a total lack of self care when it came to personal injury, but no family is without flaws).
In armed courteous societies violence as a potential is always there, but the idea of mass violence is not. In essence, courtesy is about respecting the limits we acknowledge each other’s right to defend with force.
Enter the twin forces of law and liberalism. First we have the rule of the law, which degenerated quickly into the rule of the lawyer, and now the lawyers sacred moral vacuum has effectively removed all traces of honour from a defensible place in public life. You no longer need your honour to operate in public life, as long as you are able to avoid jail, you are free to do as you please. Add the subtle poison myth that violence never solves anything; demonstrably untrue, yet somehow accepted now as the basis for proper behavior, and you have today’s society.
We fail utterly to treat each other with courtesy. Our politicians are not “straight shooters” because they are not polite to their opponents, they are muck raking slanderous demagogues whose success or failure in public life depends on their ability to make the largest possible segment of the population angry at those that disagree with it. Our politicians and media do not seek nor speak the truth, the take an once of truth, wrap it in five pounds of barbed wire, dip it in manure and whip it at people, for the sole purpose of shocking and offending them with what they understand full well is only by the strictest legal definition not quite a deliberate lie.
When men offer courtesy to women it is considered sexist, when the offer it to other men it is taken as weakness. When women offer courtesy to men it is considered either subordination or an invitation to sexual advances. When women offer courtesy to other women it is considered to be suspect if the women are not of the same social/economic strata and subculture. It has become the norm to assume mockery if respect is offered across any divides at all.
We treat each other not with a default respect, but with a default contempt. We do not look upon our fellow citizens as men and women of honour until they prove otherwise, we view them as most likely as scum or possibly even threats.
Now you look at generations ago, when almost everyone had guns, and there were so few mass shootings, and look at today, where mass shootings require something really special to make the news and people are busy wondering why.
I am not.
The guns are not the problem, they are being used because of the problem. We had guns before, and swords before that. We had respect before, and that we have lost. We had the belief that we owed every human being courtesy, but we lost that. Courtesy was owed them, because they were real people and how we treated them was part of how we built our own worth in society. You could not be an honourable man or woman if you treated others discourteously. No one cares about honour or courtesy anymore, and we treat each other with a shameful degree of contempt calculated by our lawyers to be just inside the limit of the legally actionable.
Now the only people speaking of honour don’t really mean honour in the sense that our language inherited the term from the Germanic peoples, they mean Middle Eastern or Mediterranean cultural territorial violation, whereby some male has trespassed by touching, talking to, or generally interacting with a woman of their family, which they treat the same as theft of their property. Key point to keep in mind, women are not property, they are actually the other kind of people, just a little over half of all people.
We need to begin as artists, as poets, songwriters, speechwriters, as teachers, as instructors, managers, mentors, parents and (gods help me) politicians to begin to make a conscious effort to romanticize courtesy. We need to make courtesy cool, we need to make it what we think of when we think strong confident powerful; this must naturally result in courteous.
We grew vulgar, course, crass, crude and hateful over generations of calculated malice. It will take generations of calculated deliberate courtesy by those who are our icons of culture, politics, business, to again make the definition of successful, popular and worthy in our society to be courteous.
We had guns and courtesy without mass shootings. We have guns and no courtesy and we have mass shootings everywhere. Take away the guns and we are left with stabbings, trampling crowds with automobiles and whatnot.
We do not need the law to fix this, we can do it OURSELVES. We can bring back courtesy. We can begin to make a fetish of politeness, a game of manners, a power statement of etiquette. Fashion in recent generations has been shallow and venal, but the same tool can indeed be turned consciously towards making courteous treatment of others to be the only possible action for anyone who wants to think of themselves as strong, smart, powerful, or sexy.
Don’t worry, gentlemen got laid. Courteous women argued and won, the ends that we desire and the competition we need are still possible in a courteous society, but with the outward forms of courtesy come the very real inward forms of respect. Call someone sir often enough and you won’t be thinking “coon” “white trash” “queer” “rag-head” “freak”, but find yourself treating them with respect and receiving the same in return, regardless of what labels you might apply to them if you were not constrained by courtesy to actually treat them as an individual and not a nameless member of a class you judged already. Call someone ma’am and you are less likely to feel comfortable grabbing her ass as she passes by or feeling free to call her a whore for the crime of not wanting to have dinner with you, or dressing in a way you don’t approve of. Call someone ma’am often enough and you will find yourself thinking of her as a person, not whatever label sets your teeth on edge and makes you free to use such hateful language and shameful actions.
Courtesy is artificial, so is society. Man in the state of nature is little better than the poo throwing monkeys in the zoo. What sets us apart is the structure we choose to create for our society, that allows us to come together and act for our collective interest. It is all made up. It is all made up either by our deliberate invention, or by thoughtless drift.
Thoughtless drift got us to the age where we look upon each other as unworthy, we interact with each other as unworthy by default, and we see so little value in each other as individuals that we are able actually to see killing each other in large numbers as an adequate way to express a thousand different personal issues.
I kid you not, courtesy is the foundation of valuing each other as people. Seeing each other as people, as individuals of worth by default, is the only real bar for mass killings. We will still kill each other, but Joe will be killing Bob over a very personal reason, not Jamal, Suzi, Yuki and Misha happened to be in McDonalds the day Floyd finally lost it over a stale set of fries and emptied his pistol into the restaurant.
Laws won’t stop mass killings. Courtesy will. We have always been good at killing, but we used to be courteous and respectful as the cornerstones of our second and just as important skill set; not killing.
Odin teaches us a gift for a gift, and spends the bulk of his only words to us telling each other not how to kiss up to the gods, but how to treat each other with respect. How to recognize relationships that are not balanced and to fix them. Odin is the chooser of the slain, the battleglad, the feeder of ravens, yet even the one who wins in every battle, to whom the slaughter is sacred, tells us that we really need to focus on treating each other with respect, and building strong, respectful, and reciprocal relationships with each other if we plan on leading a good, worthy, or successful life.
I think you can make a difference, every day. Every one of you. If you read this far, you actually care. If you read this far and understood, then you know you can become the active agent of change to begin to steer our society to a healthier place, where we respect, rather than fear each other. We can reach a place where Sir and Ma’am are so common that society feel compelled to get around to updating its pronouns for modern understandings of gender, or coming up with a term to respectfully apply to individuals of any gender. Heck, dude would work, if the common usage of dude became an honorific.