What matters more: the matter or the manner? A man’s message or his manners?

When Trump began his rise to power, and then again after he was elected, his manners bothered me more than his message. A person who enters the public sphere ought to present himself in a way that shows respect for other people, for differences, and for public institutions. In the US, for example, when a judge enters a courtroom, everyone stands up when the officer calls out, “All rise!” This custom shows respect for the law as represented in the person of the judge.

Manners matter. Of course, the substance matters too. It matters that the respect we show the law is not empty show. It matters that the law is worthy of respect, that its representatives have not been corrupted by bribes.

I am not willing to listen to someone who, like Trump, does not present himself respectfully and who does not know or care how one is supposed to participate in reasonable discussion.

I learned something from an expert animal trainer: “A barking dog is an invisible dog.” The idea is that if you pay attention to a barking dog (positively or negatively), you reward its behavior and encourage it to continue in future. That’s how I feel in general towards people with poor manners and in particular how I felt towards candidate Trump.

You may suppose that manners are superficial, that a person with polished, urbane manners is wearing a mask, behind which he may be hiding, intending to deceive and manipulate others. By contrast, a person who speaks spontaneously, in a frank and unrehearsed manner, is more likely to be sincere and authentic. There is something to this, and it may well be an important factor in Trump’s appeal to his supporters.

There is another factor here. Refined manners in a man are likely to be perceived as effeminate or emasculating. For sure, part of Trump’s appeal, both to men and to women, is that he comes across as a real, undomesticated, masculine man.

But now, in connection with the Korean missile crisis, I think we can see the very real danger in releasing an untamed man onto the stage of international relations.

Here’s a quotation from the great scholar Jean Starobinski:

What makes fine manners pleasant is in large part the concerted suppression, the conventional repudiation of the potential for aggression intrinsic to all human relationships.

Polite society creates a safe space where we can engage in commerce without fear of plunder, conversation without fear of insult, and courtship without fear of assault. ┬áThat’s the kind of safe space I crave.

We’re now obviously living in a dangerous space, where the so-called “real man” may well reveal himself through his willingness to use nuclear weapons and kill millions of people.

A barking dog is not merely one with bad manners. A barking dog is a clear and present danger.

The bite may be worse than the bark

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