Being polite to people has become increasingly difficult in this day and age, partly because people themselves have become increasingly impolite and partly because people have become increasingly contemptible. After all, it seems pointless to be polite to someone whose position on the evolutionary scale falls somewhere between a three-toed, thick-tailed water lizard and a South American Howler monkey. Of course, I don’t wish to demean the Howler monkey for his lack of concern with politeness. He simply has no use for it and given the fact that he is a monkey, I don’t necessarily blame him for this deficiency in his character. If I were to witness a polite monkey, I would be quite taken aback and would, justifiably, begin to regard him as something different than a monkey. Likewise, when I see a man who is acting without the virtue of politeness, I’m inclined to think him something different than a man.
Why might this be so? What is the virtue of politeness? Should it be even considered a virtue? After all, it seems to be nothing more than a facade of sorts. One can certainly be polite and yet be immoral in every other way. The French philosopher Andre Comte-Sponville points out that politeness is the mask that children must wear in order to practice being virtuous. In this way, it’s essential for the child, but inessential for the adult who has presumably already acquired virtue. The child practices being virtuous by being polite and thereby is somehow trained to be moral. Of course, this certainly sounds logical, but it seems to allow adults the opportunity to forgo their responsibility to be polite.
While it’s true that someone who is overly polite risks appearing somewhat insincere, someone who shows no signs of politeness appears as nothing more than a callous brute. Politeness is a form of respect. Being polite toward our fellow human beings demonstrates a kind of Kantian deference for another person’s consciousness. The practice of certain Asiatic religions is to bow in the presence of others to signify the recognition of a deity of sorts. Politeness works in much the same way. It’s the acknowledgement of a being in the universe other than your own which deserves equal respect. It’s the kind of moral understanding that is normally acquired during early childhood when the toddler first begins to realize that he is not the only creature on the planet earth, that the universe, in fact, does not revolve around his or her every whim. In this age of individualism, perhaps we have been raised to only truly respect ourselves.