Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Sticks And Stones…

The decision by a judge to dismiss an offensive language charge against a university student has raised the ire of the New South Wales Police Association. It’s not that the Association wants the young man locked up and the key thrown away, but they believe that the decision undermines respect for not only the Police, but for the law itself. In this case, 22 year old Henry Grech was stopped by a police constable after jumping the barricade at a railway station. There was a heated argument, which culminated in Mr. Grech referring to the police officer as a “prick”. That in itself is not exactly the most offensive word which might have been chosen, but there is no doubt that it was intended as an insult.

It might in some respects appear to be a trivial matter, but I believe that it raises a great many questions about what should be considered acceptable behavior, about respect for authority, and about whether or not there should be legal implications for what amounts to appallingly bad manners. The judge ruled that the word itself was in common usage, and that the police officer should be accustomed to hearing it, and for that matter a whole lot worse. In so far as that goes, the judge is absolutely right. But the police association is equally correct when they point out that the exact same insult directed at a judge would instantly attract a charge of contempt.

Part of the problem is that there is no clear definition of the boundaries, and what is acceptable in one circle of people is not acceptable in another. 22 year old Mr. Grech has no doubt grown up in a world where casual colourful language is a part of everyday conversation, not to mention popular entertainment such as movies and computer games. As such, he might consider his choice of words as being an appropriate expression of his dissatisfaction with the manner in which the police officer has handled the situation, while not actually intending to commit a further offence. But the truth is that he would never have found himself in this trouble if he had learned to be a little more polite in the first place.

While colourful language is not always intended to be abusive, and abusive language is not always colourful, it is usually pretty clear when a remark is intended to be insulting, offensive, or abusive. After all, in this country we have a tradition of calling our best mates “bastards”, and these days young women can call each other “bitch” as a mark of sisterly solidarity. What seems to be missing is an understanding of when and where to parade the colourful vernacular, and when not to. What seems to be missing is the idea of manners.

Manners are more than just courtesy to strangers, although that is part of it. Good manners provide a framework for how to conduct ourselves in private, in public, with friends and with strangers, in fact in every aspect of our lives. Treating others with respect will not guarantee that they will do the same to us, but it goes a long way towards encouraging it. On the other hand, lack of manners can only lead to lack of respect, and lack of respect leads to anger, fear, and malice. From there, it’s only a short step to more seriously antisocial activities.

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