The New Miss Manners

I was interested to see a piece in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal on the latest update to Emily Post’s famous Etiquette (1922).   Because of the success of Etiquette, Emily Post’s name became synonymous, at least in North America, with proper manners.  Nearly half a century after her death, her name is still invoked in titles of books co-authored by Ms. Post’s great-grand daughter Cindy Post Senning and numerous other members of the extended Post family.

The most recent title to issue from the eponymous Emily Post Institute is Prom and Party Etiquette by Cindy and Peggy Post.  The advice that the young women receive in the handbook however would be enough to make old Emily crush her debutante boutonnieres in frustration and despair.  Here girls are advised to consider, coolly and honestly, whether bedding a date on prom night is always such a good idea.  Of course the question itself suggests that in some cases, such a decision may indeed be a very good idea.   The chapter in which this is described is titled ” A Special Act for A Special Evening.”  The “act,” the authors seem to be conceding, is going to be performed anyway, so why resist the zeitgeist and appear prudish.

Megan Cox Gordon complains in the Wall Street Journal piece that such moral neutrality from parents, teachers and contemporary guidebooks, creates a moral matrix within which teenagers feel free to make such decisions.  She claims that giving children the choice is tantamount to giving them the nod, which is no guidance at all.

This was recently reinforced for me when reading Sharlene Azam’s book Oral Sex Is the New The Kiss Goodnight. I was struck by one passage, early in the book, which describes how young girls from prosperous middle class neighborhoods, casually fall into promiscuity and then, in certain cases, into prostitution.

” The biggest surprise was their parents’ complicity.  They witnessed their daughters coming home with new clothing, jewelry and pockets full of cash, and often did nothing.  These parents feel powerless to change their daughters’ behavior because they have surrendered their authority to pop culture, celebrities and the Internet.

Diana West complains of the same malaise in The Death of the Grown Up. She reports how a parent in Pennsylvania went to court to overturn her 13-year- old’s expulsion from her middle class school for having performed oral sex on a 13-year-old boy on a school bus.  The mother purportedly complained that the expulsion was not fair because the school  was” unclear, in its written policies that having oral sex on a school bus is unacceptable behavior.”   In another case, an upper middle class couple were discovered having hired a $345 -an-hour stripper to have dairy toppings licked off her breasts while she lay on her back on the home patio while both they and a crowd of 15-year-old boys gawked.

Parental absenteeism was also culpable in an incident in my own neighborhood in Los Angeles when a 15-year- old  girl from tony Milken High School in Bel Air was knifed to death at a party that had been hurriedly organized upon  the departure of the host’s parents for a weekend in Las Vegas.  In another incident in the Pico Robertson neighborhood of Los Angeles, a girl  from an Orthodox Jewish high school was rushed to hospital with alcohol poisoning after she posted notice on Facebook  of a party at her home after her parents departed for the weekend.  The party was crashed by 500 people, many of them gang members from East L.A.

The collapse of parental authority and oversight is evident throughout our society as we surrender our moral watch of our children to the Internet and MTV.  And as Rochelle Gurstein notes in The Repeal of Reticence:

” Repeated exposure to indecency, ultimately inures people and threatens to make all of society shameless, in  the precise sense that it considers nothing sacred.”

Maybe that is something Emily Post’s heirs might have considered in their new book.   Rather than attempting to mollify our teenagers by attempting to see life through their eyes, perhaps we need to begin reclaiming our own sense of  “adulthood”  by returning to a world where  the three ‘ r’s’ –  restraint, reticence and rectitude – are not regarded as the outdated remnants from an age of prudery, but the foundational principles of civilized conduct.

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