How to be a gentleman in this postmodern era
The superstar public intellectual, David Brooks, wants to revive conversation about sin and righteousness. I see why, though I think those terms are outdated. They imply that there’s a clear path to good or evil when there isn’t. They come from traditions that assume that a higher power provided straightforward instructions for how to live righteously and if you don’t follow them, you’re a sinner.
Now we live in a postmodern world, not just a melting pot of different values,more like a crucible, all of us more interconnected than ever, squeezed into close quarters, striving to forge some new way to interact with close neighbors, family, partners and friends whose values diverge from our own.
I want to bring back another outdated term: Gentleman, or its unisex update—gentleperson, or simply gents.
The “gentle” in “gentleman” comes from the Old French gentil, meaning “high-born noble” It has been in use since the 11th century and broadly speaking, has had three incarnations. I think it’s time for Gent 4.0.
It first meant members of the landed class, financially secure and therefore perhaps somewhat freer than those who live hand-to-mouth. By the 1600’s its meaning began to shift toward a more familiar use, a person of refined character.
More recently still, gentleman has become a largely empty kind of flattery applied to any guy, as in “ladies and gentlemen” or “Gentleman” posted on a public bathroom.
From landed nobility to noble character to nobody in particular, and now my suggested fourth incarnation, appropriate to the postmodern era in which we have to get along with each other even though our values diverge. It’s time for the thoroughly postmodern gent.
Gentleness is only half of what it takes to be a postmod gent of either sex. Gentleness is the part that we despair most about losing in modern society. People are no longer gentle with each other. They push, shove and grab what they want. They’ve have lost all sense of etiquette. People are spoiled these days, or so we’re often reminded.
Compared to other societies past and elsewhere, we are spoiled but largely because of changes in technology and culture that we mostly welcome. A more neutral way to describe us is as people who have come to expect that we can overcome inconveniences. We have lived during the world’s most expansive proliferation of better mousetraps. Naturally, we have come to expect that problems can be solved technical fixes. We are solution-expecting people.
Naturally also, we’re a little confused about what can and can’t be solved with technology. We might occasionally mistake our fellow humans for malfunctioning machines in need of a good kick to get them running right.
We’re also freer than many societies past and elsewhere, liberated to pursue what we value. And that’s a good thing, though it does turn up the temperature within our crucible society populated as is by people who, thanks to technological innovation, come from all over and can exercise and broadcast their values far and freely. Like landed gentry, we’re freer than most people have ever been.
Being a Postmodern Gent, as I’ll define it, is striving to find ways to be charming with chutzpah, gentle while expressing one’s values honestly. It’s not just being gentle and biting one’s tongue. It’s giving voice to our values without biting others. It’s maintaining intimacy with our values while maintaining intimacy with others, or as the Poet Philip Larkin says, seeking and finding words “at once true and kind, or not untrue and not unkind.”
It’s tact, though not as it’s sometimes interpreted–keeping your opinions to yourself. It’s diplomacy but again not just hitting your mute button. It’s seeking and finding the sweet spot between self-expression and self-control.
The Gent seeks ways to be charming yet direct, assertive yet disarming, bold yet humble. Gents are what we need in a society in which, as the philosopher Hume put it, “Truth springs from argument amongst friends.” A Gent tries to keep it friendly while arguing. It’s not easy and it doesn’t always work. You have values that will offend, disappoint and angerothers no matter how carefully you express them, and they have values that would offend, disappoint and anger you.
I aspire to be a Postmodern Gent. I look for gent role models and try to learn from their rhetorical stylings. I play a game with myself. The object is to exercise my freedom of speech so its heard and honored which requires ways to maximize my honoring of others even when we disagree. I assume, for the sake of the game that with the right styling, there’s nothing I can’t say to anyone. This assumption is obviously not entirely true, but embracing it for the sake of the game motivates me to strive for better ways to get my ideas across to receptive ears. There is no perfect Gent, because not everything true is kind, but there is trying.
Being a Postmodern Gent is not just a matter styling. I have to be humble and bold down to the bone to really pull it off. If I declare my values with the slightest hint that others are fools or jerks for having other values, I make people bristle, boil and retaliate. Soon we fall into what I call “infallibility contests:” Either I’m right about everything or you are.”
I therefore have to work on ways to keep from feeling like supreme judge or pontiff, ways to stay off my high horse, or if I mount to dismount quickly. I have to be able to stand corrected readily, apologetic but with dignity intact. To my mind, the Gent’s watchwords are no matter how confident I am in my bets, I’m still more confident that they are bets.
I am no more a master at this pursuit than I’m a master at writing or any of the other skills I pursue. I’m just an aspiring post-modern gent.