A Point of View: The underrated power of courtesy

Woman makes "namaste" gesture of courtesy Image copyright ALAMY

Courtesy has a quiet power which is often overlooked, says AL Kennedy.

This week I wanted to talk about courtesy - to discuss the ways in which we seem to have embraced discourtesy. I wanted to talk about how courtesy can make practical sense and ripples out from individuals to change their environments for the better. I wanted to consider the practice of courtesy as a way of being in the world.

Then a friend of mine, a screenwriter called Gill Dennis, died suddenly. He was at home and doing what he did, being in his study, being a writer, a husband, a father - the man we all knew and then he was gone. No more plans to make with him, no more stories to tell.

The thing is, Gill was one of the most truly courteous human beings I have ever met and not mentioning him today would have been hard, and his absence is already too hard, so I'm keeping him here, at least in these words. And now I'm going to tell you an anecdote. It's a story I was going to tell Gill. Wherever you went with him, people would end up telling Gill stories. Because he liked stories. Because he liked people.

So. I was on a train recently and heard a man's voice shouting and swearing and I couldn't help listening, but I would have paid attention, anyway.

I take an interest in bullying and aggression, all the levels of discourtesy. I was bullied slightly at school and later in a relationship. My grandfather - who's my model for a proper man - saw his father ill-treat his mother and was a boxer and had strong opinions about defying flaunted threat and defending women.

And I've worked with abused women. On Twitter I follow a lot of threads giving examples of violence and specifically male violence, but also feeds about male resistance to violent and sexist behaviour. There's the White Ribbon Campaign and the Turkish men who cross-dressed this February for women's rights. And the Iranian and Kurdish men who cross-dressed against sexism in 2013.

I mention this because, depending on the information streaming in at me, I can feel violence is all humanity deserves, or the last thing any of us should meet. I can think most men are decent and trying to get along - like most women - or I can have my doubts about everyone. But I try to be positive.

And that disturbance on my train turned out to be a lyrical flow of abuse directed at a man who had, in the shouter's opinion, frightened a female passenger. And that behaviour, we all heard, was unacceptable. Completely. And any woman could be our mother, our sister - we should know better. And every now and then the shouter apologised to the woman passenger in question for swearing.

My particular history and sources of information meant I felt exhilarated - here was an underdog being defended, here was a manly man defining manliness as gentleness. I was recalling the times when I'd needed defending and no one was available. I was recalling all those abused women I'd met and read about. I was recalling a time when I'd also yelled and sworn in the street at a man who was threatening a woman - both of them strangers to me - and had enjoyed a surge of righteous fury.

And maybe the shouter's intervention was a kind deed in an uncaring world.

Courtesy can be an excuse for cowardice, can conceal a lack of interest in others' pain, the love of one's own quiet life. But shouting and swearing is discourteous - is it okay to be discourteous about discourtesy?

Is it OK for a man to act on a woman's behalf without asking? Are some interventions without permission okay? Was the woman quiet because she was practising self-restraint? Was she silent because the shouting was making her think of something worse?

Was the shouting man himself recalling other incidents, did he specifically care about the woman? He seemed to. He seemed intent on courtesy as a universal principle.

And did my slight surprise at the content of his monologue mean that I mostly expect shouting men to be selfishly threatening? Do I actually think badly of men in general, although at present I know only gentle and admirable men? Am I somehow discourteous to men, because of my preconceptions? Finding where true courtesy lies and how to sustain it can seem complicated.

Image copyright ALAMY

Although I love the access to data that the internet grants me, I'm also aware I can use it to cherry-pick information that confirms my current opinions and beliefs. Anyone can.

Scientists call this succumbing to confirmation bias. Online searches can steepen gradients of hate. Virtual communities can get together and swap press clippings that reinforce pre-existing hatreds, rehearse perceived wrongs, post links to websites that claim to prove this or that type of human being is under-evolved. Jokes with death as the punchline proliferate.

Online, discourtesy can quickly become normality. With what can seem like legions on our side, any views we don't agree with can seem entirely unforgiveable and shocking, intrusive. Relatively anonymous, quite possibly in our own homes, we can feel cosy about firing off abuse we might never utter when face to face with a live human being. So confirmation bias, conformity, groupthink and alienation make us cruel.

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But these very human weaknesses aren't restricted to the internet. The ingrained discourtesy of our more conventional media is so familiar it has become almost invisible.

We're used to those media warning about the dangers that lurk beyond our keyboards - the mobbing, the way words can ruin vulnerable lives, the gloating over acts of violence, the unhappy few driven to suicide.

Then again, the conventional media don't have a great track record when it comes to vulnerable lives, or harm, or exercising self-restraint. It's not a great sign, surely, when the UN high commissioner for human rights feels he has to step in and highlight what he sees as dangerous levels of hate in the British media. Discourtesy has become normality there too.

So much brutal language and brutal thinking can't really excuse itself, in my opinion, by saying it's "what everyone's thinking". Is everyone genuinely always thinking that other human beings are stupid, lazy, greedy and a threat? Is the best balance to the bizarre convolutions of political correctness really gutter-level abuse?

Are petty career-building and attempts to broaden one's demographic worth a steady increase in ambient loathing and the blurring of inconvenient facts in more and more layers of public life? Factual reporting is time-consuming, research is expensive and may shake one's world view - trading in offence is cheap and gathers a temporary audience-share in a dwindling market. But do we think this kind of thing ever ends well?

And yet the presence of courtesy - not patronising correctness, not lazy politeness, not the habit of disinterest, but true courtesy - changes everything.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Gill Dennis (1941-2015): Hollywood screenwriter whose credits include Walk the Line (2005) and Return To Oz (1985)

I know this because of people like Gill. Gill is missed by so many people because so many people in so many different countries loved him, because he was truly courteous.

We've talked about him a lot since he died and always we've returned to this one simple thing - his courtesy. And it wasn't complicated, it was simple.

When he met you, he assumed you were worth defending and respecting and cheering on. He took that risk. In a tough childhood and a tough life, in the army, in Hollywood, in his study, in the world - he took that risk.

And we saw what happened when courtesy walks into a room - how it seems to turn a light on, lets us see each other. Courtesy can be contagious.

And why not be courteous? Even the worst person I know doesn't need me to wish them harm, or that they'll die. We all die. And reality harms us first.

We all deserve pity. And ditching our own humanity, even when we struggle with something we find wrong won't help us. And I try, I try to be courteous because of the people, like Gill, who make being human feel like being good and as if it carries the obligation of doing good.

Being near that, seeing it demonstrated, is a gift. As another friend of Gill's wrote to me: "We were so lucky."

A Point of View is broadcast on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated Sundays 08:50 BST or listen on BBC iPlayer.

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