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  • Tim Lambert

Have we got the concept of politeness all wrong?

Being polite and trying not to rock the boat runs the risk of making us an accessory to discriminatory and prejudicial behaviour. So, maybe we need to think differently about what politeness is.


They say the British are a polite race. Just how true this is may be in dispute. Brexit has unleashed a barrage of hate, and the plethora of social media platforms has both emboldened and enabled people to pour this hate and vitriol upon the world. Many Brits have not acquitted themselves well, and I count many of our senior politicians among that band. So, politeness may not be a peculiarly British thing, but it is a thing.


For many of us, British or not, the desire not to cause offence is strong. We seek to present ourselves in non-confrontational ways. We don’t deliberately set out to provoke. We have a driver to put the other person at their ease. Sometimes, we even go so far as seeming to agree with someone even when we don’t, rather than get into an argument or imply they might actually be wrong.


The idea of right and wrong can get muddied sometimes, but in a developed society, there are some shared truths and beliefs that without which, society starts to crumble. These are the foundations from which a decent society can grow and prosper: human equality, and human rights, preservation of life, doing no harm to our neighbours, paying our taxes, caring for the sick and elderly, education, collaboration. When any one of these come under attack, civilised societies fight hard to protect them because each one is so highly prized and so essential.


These values are not the preserve of western cultures alone, even though the political forces in other states seem to have a vested interested in denying them. Even in western cultures, some of these values are under attack.


Closer to home, our actions within our own local community, our family, our workplace and our neighbourhood; either serve to promote and protect these values or discourage them. Which brings me back to the notion of politeness.



Whenever we fail to challenge actions and remarks that burrow into the foundational values of our society, we effectively condone the attack. Failing to speak up and speak out when a colleague makes a culturally-offensive remark, or a homophobic statement, gives a clear sign that such remarks are tolerable. Rolling of the eyes and a slight smirk might show some mild level of discomfort with the sentiment expressed but is essentially a let-off. It says it’s okay to be xenophobic and ignorant. It's a form of ironic admonishment that says, 'You are awful, but I like you'.


Every day, we have multiple opportunities to stand up for what is decent. Sitting silently in a taxi whilst the driver pontificates about there being too many foreigners in his local supermarket; or overlooking an employee’s colourful remarks about gay people, simply validates their views.


There is no such thing as ‘casual’ racism or ‘casual’ sexism. Racism, sexism, homophobia are active positions, built on ignorance, fear and hate. They must never go unchallenged, irrespective of where they originate. That is our moral duty, and we do our communities a great disservice when we choose not to respond.


So maybe we should reconsider what ‘politeness’ is. I suggest that it is impolite to allow someone to spout unfounded and prejudicial statements, even as passing comments, without challenging and correcting them. To allow them to pursue a line of ignorance is disrespectful to them, and to the people they attack.

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