It is often repeated that the etiquette of the past was overly restrictive and undoubtedly sexist as it applied considerably harsher rules to women than it did to men. This view of our former rules of manners and etiquette is undoubtably true. Take a look at this entertaining video on Victorian etiquette.
I am sure we are all glad that most of these rules no longer apply to our social lives. However, as constricting as these rules seem, there is a background of conventions concerning manners that seem even to a contemporary reader to be admirable. For example, on this website concerning Victorian etiquette, the basic rules of proper manners seems largely reasonable. This advice includes such simple themes as "learn to govern yourself and be gentle and patient," "never speak or act in anger," "remember that, valuable as is the gift of speech, silence is often more valuable," and "do not neglect little things if they can affect the comfort of others." These little pieces of advice seem to me to be invaluable and I wish that I could have learned to apply them earlier in life.
It seems to me that not only do people fail to undertake some very basic rules of manners and etiquette that could make everyone's life healthier and happier, but that modern technology is eating away at people's manners in a way that will, over the long term, be highly destructive. One only needs to read the comment section on any website to understand how easily some people succumb to their rudest and most violent instincts. I realized just how bad it had gotten the other day when I engaged in a brief Facebook conversation and no manner how calmly and reasonably I presented my position, other people hurled insults at me, sidestepped the real issues, and ignored any rational discourse. One of the most basic elements in Gandhi's social philosophy was that if you act calmly and rationally, and you refuse to fight or get angry, your actions will unwittingly foster respect in others, respect that will make it more difficult for others to be abusive and violent. And I have found that in interpersonal situations this is often true. Not so much online. Being online is a bit like driving a car - it makes a lot of people feel powerful and invulnerable. So people will go on and on about things they know little about and they will be ever ready to insult and abuse anyone who disagrees with them.
This online nastiness is a phenomenon which has already been widely commented on. However, what I find troubling is the idea that a whole generation of young people are growing up with a violent online persona and I can't help thinking that this will have to impact their offline behavior as they grow up. If young people's first response to discursive disagreement online is disrespectful, presumptuous, and abusive, this is bound to overflow into their everyday lives at some point. This is a rather ominous tendency.
In my formative years of political and philosophical development, I tried very hard to utilize the expertise of people more knowledgable and experienced than I to gain the wisdom that I lacked. Of course my interactions were not always perfect and respectful by any means, but I very consciously tried to discuss and talk rather than simply assert and yell. This was not always easy but I really tried because, at the very least, I had the humility to know that I didn't know everything and I wanted to learn and I wanted to feel that I was intellectually growing.
As I said, I too have succumbed at times to my worst impulses, both on and offline. But I continue to work to be more discursive and respectful. But as etiquette and manners become more lax, I can't help but wonder if the next generation will be mindful of this important part of interpersonal growth.