“In this blog, you will learn of Etiquette, Fashion, Gastronomy, Self Improvement, and Southern Culture. There will be elaborate stories, anecdotes, testimonies, recommendations, lists, rules… the possibilities are endless! Thank you for stopping by! I wish you good health and prosperity.”
-Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Civility: “Welcome”
When I wrote those words in November of 2011, I had no idea that Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Civility: The Ramblings of a Charlestonian Bon Vivant would come so far, nor did I realize it would be known by a different name: The Pursuit of Civility. Granted, at this current stage of The Pursuit of Civility’s life, I wouldn’t dare say I am a well known blogger. Hell, I wouldn’t even say I’m remotely known, as I have very little recognition outside of a few people on tumblr and twitter. But this doesn’t have any bearing regarding my previous statement. I am still amazed at what this blog has turned into.
When I started The Pursuit of Civility, it was simply an outlet for frustration and expression. At the time (and still today), I was sick and tired of rude people and unkempt people, and I constantly ragged on both monstrosities. After several weeks of critiquing and criticizing, several close friends suggested that I start a blog about such subjects. I gave it a thought, but I had no idea how to start a blog. Eventually, tumblr came into the picture and I set up an account. I wrote my mission statement and from there, we find this humble little blog.
At first, my concept for the blog was to set it up as a primer, with each post being a lesson in etiquette or fashion and occasional inserts relating to Southern culture and Gastronomy. Needless to say, this didn’t last very long. Over time, the posts shed their cold and distant voice of a miserly tutor and, instead, took the form of a personal tour through a journalistic archive. Other subjects came into the picture. We explored the origins of South Carolina barbeque. We examined the value of words. We contemplated the meaning of being a Southerner. We questioned the meaning of the Good Life, explored the idea of a bucket list, and even dabbled in religion from time to time. What once was a manual became an cooperative experience, and through this, we have begun to fulfill our moniker: the pursuit of civility.
But why pursue civility? In this world of hustle and bustle, grab and go, does something as archaic as civility have any bearing?
It seems every generation has one thing in common: they believe the next one will be the demise of American culture as we know it. Regardless of our ages, we all have heard something along the lines of: “Back in my day, we didn’t have these problems,” or “This generation is going to kill America!” Even though many of these statements are akin to predictions of the coming of Christ, skewed and inaccurate, there are some that are very valid. It doesn’t take a genius to see how American culture has changed over the course of a century. I could list off a series of points that I believe demonstrate such a cultural shift, but that would be overkill, for you see, all can be tied to two words: respect and refinement.
Respect, whether it be towards authorities, elders, or fellow peers, is given very little thought. Not to sound like an octogenarian, but there was once a time when a lack of respect was a serious offense. Teachers would punish, parents would chastise, and authorities would reprehend. There wasn’t any coddling, compromising, or negotiating. It was what it was.
The question then is why has there been such a slide? Why has a lack of respect become such a pandemic? The answer lies in our development as a society.
The twentieth century was one of the most progressive of any in recorded history: not necessarily because of philosophical ideas or an artistic renaissance, but because of communication and transportation. What once took weeks or months to deliver to others became instantaneous. People could travel across vast distances in a matter of hours, where previously it would have taken days or weeks. From there, it was simply a chain reaction. Society’s pace was hastened, and life began to run at a much faster pace, especially in the big cities. When life moves at a faster pace, courtesy becomes a speed hump, and thus it was thrown to the wayside. Because these cities were the industrial and cultural hubs of the nation, their cultures spread throughout the rest of the country as headlining examples, mainly because of two inventions: the radio and the television. From these outlets, countless amounts of people across the nation heard of the goings on in New York, Chicago, and other media-centric cities. The culture, arts, and everyday affairs of these fast-paced cities were sent out to listeners and viewers in their homes, cars, and offices. Thus, American culture became more homogenized.
Now before you start calling me a modern day member of the “Southern Agrarians,” I am quick to say that I am glad such mass communication came into play. Many beautiful and culturally rich mediums were broadcasted to people that would otherwise never witness or enjoy such. NBC, for example, heralded the music scene by broadcasting concerts from their studios. In fact, at the time, the NBC Symphony Orchestra was one of the best in the world. Under the leadership of Arturo Toscanini, the NBC Symphony Orchestra introduced many Americans to Beethoven’s symphonies (luckily, I have in my possession all of their Beethoven symphony recordings on LPs), Wagner’s operas, and Bach’s fugues. So, in short, mass media is a double-edged sword: many great things have been spread because of it, and many bad things have been spread because of it.
Back to the subject at hand.
American culture, as we now see it, is fairly homogenized. Yes, we still have regional identities that distinguish us, but for the most part, American culture has a solid definition. To the rest of the world, American culture is defined by what happens in New York, Chicago, Washington D.C, and Los Angeles, and for the most part, we Americans buy into this as well. Thus, the gruff and impersonal demeanors of these cities have spread from coast to coast. In turn, this evolved into a lack of respect. Is this to say the lifestyles of cities such as New York are the spawn of Satan? Absolutely not, but the fast-paced development of these cities is the progenitor; it wasn’t intended to be this way, but circumstances led it to be such.
Respect, though integral, is but one half to the definition of civility. Equally important is refinement.
Not to sound pompous or snooty, but being a Charlestonian skews one’s view of refinement. Though I did not grow up on the peninsula, a good amount of my time was, and continues to be, spent down there, and as we all know, the Holy City is a gem. Genteel and beautiful, she is a majestic image of refinement at its highest. And it doesn’t stop there. Many of Charleston’s suburbs, especially east of the Cooper, are very upscale and have a “southern chic” vibe, with the area possessing many country clubs, tennis courts, marinas, and nice shopping venues; thus, this area is also very refined, though not in the historical sense. In turn, being a native of such a special place lends one to be naïve towards the rest of the world. For Yours Truly, such was the case.
When I moved to Columbia, I was shocked by the lack of culture, style, and sense of identity; even in the most rustic areas of Charleston, there is still a heaping of culture. Columbia, on the other hand, just seemed like a cookie cutter kind of town, just like any other relatively good sized city in America. Apart from the University and a few local churches (mine included, thank goodness), it was a generic concrete jungle with government making up its cultural activities. This was not always the case, for Columbia used to be a very beautiful town at the beginning of the twentieth century. Unfortunately, her old homes and buildings were torn down in favor of modern styles. One thing led to another, and most of downtown Columbia became a generic image of American development. Over time, I have learned to appreciate Columbia for what it has, but I am still refreshed by the buzzing and exciting culture of Charleston. Yes, I am well-aware that Charleston is not a bustling city like New York or Los Angeles. Frankly, I’m glad that it isn’t, but it still has a defining cosmopolitan buzz and idiosyncratic culture. It is a hotbed of arts, fashion, restaurants, and has a unique nightlife. True, we still have our traditions and customs that will never budge, but we also have a new way of life that has swept our town.
Ramblings aside, refinement is a necessary component to civility, but I think we still need to dig deeper, because refinement doesn’t mean the same thing to someone in Valdosta, Georgia or Centreville, Maryland. In addition to the common idea of being “nice and luxurious,” I believe refinement also means celebrating your culture, whatever that may be. Not every town has pre-revolutionary mansions or antebellum plantations, but every town does have something of which to be proud. Your hometown may not have a performing arts festival, but you may have a very expansive library. Maybe your hometown has a famous resident, or is known for having a very quirky history (Columbia falls under this example)? Instead of bulldozing this and whitewashing your town, thereby turning it into the textbook image of commonplace American development, you should preserve, promote, and celebrate these qualities! Make a name for your town, and show the world why your little slice of heaven is special.
Now that we have explored the “demise” of civility, we can answer the question at hand: “Why pursue civility?”
Simply put, we should pursue civility to make a difference in the world: no matter the outlet or aspect. Why should we settle for a quick meal of a prefabricated hamburger and day-old french fries? Why should we settle for mediocre architecture and design, with neighborhoods full of identical houses? Why should we settle for a T shirt and blue jeans? Why should we settle for a Bud when we go out for drinks?
Life is a one time offer; we don’t get two chances. With this in mind, why on earth would one settle for mediocre? We should take this one chance and take on the world, all the while only settling for the absolute best. The Good Life is for all, no matter the budget! If you love fine art, go to the library and study the works of the greats. If you have a passion for Bach’s oratorios, buy a ticket for a performance at the symphony. If you savor fine food, buy a cookbook and start cooking. You are only limited by your imagination, for if you have a will, you can find a way. For example, I enjoy fine clothes, fine music, and fine food, but I seek out ways to gain access to such at more affordable rates. I buy clothes at thrift shops, look for free concerts, and experiment in the kitchen by copying the recipes of local chefs. Do I justify spending $70 for one at a restaurant? I can, but it doesn’t have to be so. Do I justify having reserved box seats at the symphony every season? I can, but it doesn’t have to be so. Do I justify spending $5,000 on a bespoke suit? I can, but it doesn’t have to be so. You see, it is possible to have champagne tastes on a beer budget; just don’t strictly define champagne as Dom Pérignon. By taking a stand for gentility, refinement, and quality, we can all show the world the value of civility in our modern age. We should seek refinement in all aspects of life: spanning our cuisine, history, culture, fashion, and day-to-day interactions. We desperately need to understand the need for such an outlook, for life is too short to go on monotonously. This takes great courage, but as it is said: “Fortune favors the brave!” Therefore, live life to the fullest and prosper, whether in wealth or experiences, and, as always:
To Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Civility,
A Charlestonian Bon Vivant
Politeness has been defined as an “artificial good-nature;” but it would be better said that good-nature is natural politeness. It inspires us with an unremitting attention, both to please others and to avoid giving them offence. Its code is a ceremonial, agreed upon and established among mankind, to give each other external testimonies of friendship or respect. Politeness and etiquette form a sort of supplement to the law, which enables society to protect itself against offences which the law cannot touch. For instance, the law cannot punish a man for habitually staring at people in an insolent and annoying manner, but etiquette can banish such an offender from the circles of good society, and fix upon him the brand of vulgarity. Etiquette consists in certain forms, ceremonies, and rules which the principle of politeness establishes and enforces for the regulation of the manners of men and women in their intercourse with each other.
Many unthinking persons consider the observance of etiquette to be nonsensical and unfriendly, as consisting of unmeaning forms, practiced only by the silly and the idle; an opinion which arises from their not having reflected on the reasons that have led to the establishment of certain rules indispensable to the well-being of society, and without which, indeed, it would inevitably fall to pieces, and be destroyed.
The true aim of politeness, is to make those with whom you associate as well satisfied with themselves as possible. It does not, by any means, encourage an impudent self-importance in them, but it does whatever it can to accommodate their feelings and wishes in social intercourse. Politeness is a sort of social benevolence, which avoids wounding the pride, or shocking the prejudices of those around you.
The principle of politeness is the same among all nations, but the ceremonials which etiquette imposes differ according to the taste and habits of various countries. For instance, many of the minor rules of etiquette at Paris differ from those at London; and at New York they may differ from both Paris and London. But still the polite of every country have about the same manners.
Of the manners and deportment of both ladies and gentlemen, we would remark that a proper consideration for the welfare and comfort of others will generally lead to a greater propriety of demeanor than any rules which the most rigid master of etiquette could supply. This feeling, however, is one that must be cultivated, for the promptings of nature are eminently selfish, and courtesy and good-breeding are only attainable by effort and discipline. But even courtesy has limits where dignity should govern it, for when carried to excess, particularly in manner, it borders on sycophancy, which is almost as despicable as rudeness. To overburden people with attention; to render them uncomfortable with a prodigality of proffered services; to insist upon obligations which they do not desire, is not only to render yourself disagreeable, but contemptible. This defect of manners is particularly prevalent in the rural districts, where the intense effort to render a visitor comfortable has exactly the contrary effect; besides, there are those whose want of refinement and good breeding often leads them to an unwarrantable familiarity, which requires coldness and indifference to subdue.
Much misconstruction and unpleasant feeling arises, especially in country towns, from not knowing what is “expected,” or necessary to be done on certain occasions, resulting sometimes from the prevalence of local customs, with which the world in general are not supposed to be acquainted. “To do in Rome as the Romans do,” applies to every kind of society. At the same time, you can never be expected to commit a serious breach of manners because your neighbors do so.
But what you should do, and what not, in particular cases, you will learn in the following chapters. I have only now to say, that if you wish to be agreeable, which is certainly a good and religious desire, you must both study how to be so, and take the trouble to put your studies into constant practice. The fruit you will soon reap. You will be generally liked and loved. The gratitude of those to whom you have devoted yourself will be shown in speaking well of you; you will become a desirable addition to every party, and whatever your birth, fortune, or position, people will say of you, “He is a most agreeable and well-bred man,” and be glad to introduce you to good society. But you will reap a yet better reward. You will have in yourself the satisfaction of having taken trouble and made sacrifices in order to give pleasure and happiness for the time to others. How do you know what grief or care you may not obliterate, what humiliation you may not alter to confidence, what anxiety you may not soften, what—last, but really not least—what intense dullness you may not enliven? If this work assist you in becoming an agreeable member of good society, I shall rejoice at the labor it has given me.
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