The Common Good

Manners and Morals

When our parents teach us at a very young age to say the magic words — please and thank you — they give us our first lessons in morality. Manners are the first step to morality. Etiquette is the first gesture of ethics. Manner and morals derive from the mores of a society. Etiquette derives from the ethos and ethics of a society.

When Arizona Governor Jan Brewer wagged her finger in President Obama’s face upon his arrival in her state, she demonstrated not only a disregard for the Office of the President, but she simply displayed bad manners.

In the United States, we do not have a monarch that embodies the state in his or her person. In the United States, that person is the president of the United States. He and the vice president are the only two elected officials who are elected nationwide. Thus, the president is not only the head of the executive branch of government, but he is the representative of the entire country.

Governor Brewer’s demeanor toward the president was inappropriate. However, the deeper question is why would this woman think it is appropriate to put her finger in anyone’s face, president or not?

It is impossible to live life without friction. Human community means that individuals will disagree over issues both great and small throughout the course of a single day. This is why we have developed manners and etiquette. This is why we teach our children to say please and thank you.

In womanist ethics the moral concept of unctuousness is the concept of pouring the oil of grace into human relationships. It says that we ought to treat each other gently. One of the primary principles of just peace theory is the obligation to treat people with respect.  

This means that every person great or small ought to be treated with respect by virtue of the imago dei. We each carry the image of God.

Jesus gave us a procedure by which to confront those who have offended us. Governor Brewer says that she wanted to give President Obama a letter to invite him to visit the Arizona border with Mexico.  She says the president brought up her characterization of a White House meeting in her book that he thought was inaccurate. This was correct according to Matthew 18:15-17.

Governor Brewer's response was the finger wagging that the now infamous picture shows. If President Obama had offended the governor in their meeting, the appropriate thing for her to do, according to the teachings of Jesus, would have been for her to speak to him personally about it. 

Instead, she published her complaint in her book, an account that was very different from the way she described the meeting immediately following it.

She complains that the president walked away from her while she was still talking. What does Governor Brewer expect from the president, that he would stand there and suffer her bad manners?

Walking away was the appropriate thing to do. Clearly, he was dealing with a person who had lost her grace. This is not a sexist observation because all human beings have an obligation to comport themselves with civility.

Both Republican defenders of Gov Brewer and President Obama have said that this is no big deal. However, it is a big deal when we see an elected official who does not understand that our manners are a reflection of our mores, that our etiquette is a reflection of a cultural ethos.  

It is very much past time to return to a culture of civility. 


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