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Of words and manners

Bill Meredith

"To solve a problem, follow the money."

(3/2018) My oldest grand-daughter has been living in China for the past several years, and just this month she married a very nice Chinese man. They want to start a family. I love children, and have no great grand-children yet, so I have hopes that I may live to experience it. There are so many things to watch and wonder about as they grow through childhood. For example, I have a friend whose daughter married a French student a few years ago, and they now have a little boy who is about three years old. He is energetic, inquisitive and happy… just like any other three-year-old, except for one thing: he speaks French to his father and English to his mother. He is becoming aware of this, and is not bothered by it; to him, at the age of three, his world seems perfectly normal.

My parents told me that I began talking early, and was fascinated by words. They read nursery rhymes to me at bedtime before I could talk; later there were stories such as Aesop’s fables and the Bible, which were simplified for children but still used adult language. My vocabulary grew faster than my body, so by the time I was four or five, I was using a lot of big words whose meaning I didn’t really comprehend. That led to a lot of conversations that were funny at the time, and occasionally became embarrassing as I grew older. Now, as my memory grows erratic, it still happens now and then.

Incidents stick in my mind a long time. One day in the late 1960s I was talking to a friend who said he was "not sanguine" about the progress of the war in Viet Nam. I knew that word, and had used it myself occasionally, but it dawned on me that I wasn’t sure what it really meant. I thought it was a medical term that came from the Latin word for "blood," so I had assumed that when applied to a mental attitude it should express something like "bloody-minded." But when I looked it up I found it was the opposite. It was Greek, not Latin; and in Galen’s time, it indicated a ruddy complexion, which in those days was thought to indicate good humor and cheerfulness. "Not sanguine," then, would mean not cheerful… i.e., gloomy. And my friend was right. Not long after that conversation, the whole country was rocked by news of the killing of four students by National Guard troops at Kent State University.

This is on my mind now because of the school shooting in Florida. Of course the two incidents are different both in size and cause; one was an unplanned incident during a legal protest to a war, and the other was a deliberate massacre planned by a deranged mind. But as I listened to the range of actions proposed in response to the Florida killings, it seemed that the remedy supported most loudly was to arm teachers and other school personnel and train them to respond to such attacks. History seems to have been forgotten: the National Guard troops at Kent State were armed and, presumably, trained, and they were there to prevent violence. And look what happened.

There are no simple solutions. The politicians who support arming school personnel slyly wink at the NRA lobbyists who funded their campaigns, while the lobbyists rub their hands in anticipation of the millions of dollars they will receive for the guns the public will have to buy. On the other hand are gun-control groups who point to the drop in murders in Scotland after gun ownership was banned there in the 1990s. The latter group either disregard or are unaware of the problem of scaling, which has shown repeatedly that policies which work in small populations usually don’t work in large ones. Scotland has a population of about 9.2 million; the U. S. has over 326 million. Disarming 9 million people in an area of 30,000 square miles is possible; disarming 325 million in an area of 2.9 million square miles is not. And whether guns are legal or not, there will always be mentally deranged individuals in our population. I have no idea what fraction of the population this includes, but to imagine a simple example, suppose one person in 1,000 is demented enough to open fire on a crowd of people, as happened last year in Las Vegas. That would mean our population of 326 million would include 326,000 potential mass murderers. Even if guns were not for sale in stores, some of those people would find them.

I am not a pessimist by nature, but I am an ecologist, and this is becoming an ecological problem. Both in theory and in practice, in every population that has ever been studied, unrestricted growth has been found to be impossible. Even if a species is as dominant as we humans are on earth, conflicts between individuals increase as density increases and resources become more scarce. Historically, this has resulted in plagues, famines and wars; and if you thought that was bad when the people had swords or six-guns, picture it with AR-15s. They should not be available.

Fossil records indicate that agriculture began to appear among human populations about 10,000 years ago. Before that, humans lived in family groups, or sometimes in tribes of related individuals. They fed themselves by hunting and gathering. Especially in times of bad weather there was not enough food to go around, so every family or tribe had to defend its foraging area. Individuals going out to forage were taking their lives in their hands; if they met a stranger, they could not tell whether he was invading their territory or just passing through. So in every culture signs were developed to reduce the chance of conflict. For example, raising a spear into position but not throwing it immediately might mean "This is my territory; you’d better get out," while placing the point of your spear on the ground and raising an empty hand, palm forward, might mean "I come in peace."

As centuries passed and agriculture developed, more people stopped wandering and settled into villages, and new customs became necessary. Language had to be developed for tending and trading livestock and crops, tools had to be invented and manufactured, and shops were needed to sell them. Again, when some people had things that others did not, customs were developed to reduce conflict. Various forms of commerce developed… bits of metal were hammered into coins, rules for borrowing and lending developed, writing records on clay tablets, agreements on punishment for those who broke accepted rules… in other words, civilization came into being.

It was a slow process and different places progressed at different rates; in fact there are a few cultures in places like the jungles of the Amazon that are still in the hunting/gathering stage. As time passed, some of these things were written down as codes of behavior and laws for organizing a kingdom. Some of them were detailed and complex, like the Code of Hammurabi, and others were rules of morality, like the Ten Commandments. All of these are things you have learned in history classes, and they have evolved in various forms and cultures over the past 4,000 years. Beyond these, every culture developed a system of unwritten rituals and rules that were taught in the family and in churches. They are called "manners," and in reducing conflict between individuals I think they are just as important as written laws.

It would be silliness at a criminal level if I were to suggest that good manners could solve the conflict about gun control in our country. My point is that without manners that show respect for others, negotiation to reduce conflict is not possible. Likewise, it would be equally naive to believe that if we would all just "Do Unto Others," our problems would go away. And it is also impossible to go back to the Good Old Days when life was simpler and the world was cleaner. The problems we face are not just American problems; they are world-wide in scope, and we can only deal with them by civil conduct in a world-wide effort. I am too old to do much more than think and write about them; but within the life-spans of my children we will know whether solutions are possible.

This is important. These are my great-grand children we’re talking about!

Read other articles by Bill Meredith