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  • Manners, Vulnerability, and Rude Women:Comments on Amy Olberding's The Wrong of Rudeness
  • Emily McRae (bio)

In response to Amy Olberding's fascinating and thoughtful book—a book that I wholeheartedly recommend to anyone—I will explore a specific kind of problem regarding manners and morality. It is a question that arises at the intersection of good manners, moral self-cultivation, and oppressive social systems: how do we practice good manners in non-ideal, unjust contexts as members of socially disadvantaged groups? Before I begin to address this question, I want to note that I am convinced by Amy's arguments for the significance of civility and mannerliness in moral and social life (her main argument being, roughly, that civility shows our commitment to the big values of shared life together, the regular expression of which is necessary for living together well). My reflections in this comment are not intended to devalue or undercut civility in social life. I take myself to be doing the opposite by thinking seriously about how we show our reverence for, as Amy says, that which is "finest and most exquisite" in our shared life, in contexts shaped by unjust norms (p. 58).

Of course, the Confucian philosophers that Amy engages so compellingly in this book are not strangers to this question: they were arguing for the value of li 禮 in times that were far from ideal, as political corruption, war, crime, and famine were widespread during the time period in which these thinkers were teaching and writing (475–221 b.c.e.). Not only that, but these early Confucians, including Confucius himself, were making their arguments as members of an at least somewhat socially disadvantaged group: Confucius and his followers were infamously exiled, often (but not always) denied political influence, and were not uncommonly the object of ridicule. These early Confucians were arguing for the importance of li—including civility and good manners—not from a place of assumed social, political, or economic dominance, but from the position of a complicated and considerably more vulnerable relationship to power.

As far as I know, all of these early Confucians, recorded in the Analects and other texts, were men—at least that is the conclusion of the early Hanperiod Chinese historian Sima Qian (145–86 b.c.e.), who lists seventy-seven disciples of Confucius, all male. We don't really know, then, how Confucius would counsel women students on li, or whether and how this counsel would be different from his advice to his male disciples. Regardless, it does seem to be the case that the general expectation to be mannerly applied to [End Page 1084] men and women, in the sense that neither group is given a pass on the demands of civility. Even if the specific norms of etiquette were highly gendered—for instance the different norms of etiquette that govern appropriate behavior for a husband and a wife—the general expectation to abide by li could be (and I suspect was) universal.

This, I think, is a point of significant difference between the Confucian context and our own. As far as I can tell, there is no evidence that manners were feminized in Warring States period China. But a quick tour through the history of etiquette in the United States reveals it to be a highly gendered concept: etiquette, at least from the nineteenth century onward, is feminized in at least two main ways. Etiquette in the American context is feminized in the sense that it is largely understood as for women (and, significantly, other social climbers), as rules directed to, and often written by, women (pp. 7–8). But good manners and etiquette are also feminized in the sense that they are ridiculed and trivialized in strikingly feminine terms. As Amy notes, even the word "etiquette" can be "rejected as useful for discussing serious subjects," being dismissed as "ladylike" and "prissy" (p. 8).

In thinking about manners as a cornerstone of moral self-cultivation, we have to take this history into account, since, unlike in the early Confucian context, it seems to me that for us the general expectation to be well-mannered is gendered, with the bulk of the...


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