What Is a Gentleman?

Troy: [a “gay,” played by Dave Foley]: You know, I asked him [Adam, played by Brendan Fraser] about that. He said, good manners are just a way of showing other people we have respect for them. See, I didn’t know that, I thought it was just a way of acting all superior. Oh and you know what else he told me?

Eve: [played by Alicia Silverstone] What?

Troy: He thinks I’m a gentleman and you’re a lady.

Eve: (disgusted) Well, consider the source! I don’t even know what a lady is.

Troy: I know, I mean I thought a “gentleman” was somebody that owned horses. But it turns out, his short and simple definition of a lady or a gentleman is, someone who always tries to make sure the people around him or her are as comfortable as possible.

The above is an exchange that occurs among two of the characters in the movie Blast from the Past (1999). The part of the exchange that I would like to comment on here is the statement that a gentleman is “someone who always tries to make sure the people around him or her are as comfortable as possible.”

The individual quoted here, Adam, may have been too unsophisticated to have realized the full implications of that definition, but even if that was not the case, his statement was a “mouthful,” a statement pregnant with meaning. And the earlier quotation, to the effect that “good manners are just a way of showing other people we have respect for them,” is consistent with this statement, but to a lesser degree.

Those who practice good manners relative to others may do so out of respect for others, but not necessarily. For many, showing good manners toward others is merely a habit—and may very well be a means of keeping one’s distance from others. In short, if someone demonstrates good manners with reference to others, it is difficult to infer from that fact the motivation—or, better, the reason, given that consciousness may not be involved—that lies behind the behavior.

If, however, one makes a genuine (for superficiality is possible here!) effort to make those around oneself feel comfortable, the implication is that one is able to “read” others (e.g., their facial expressions and mannerisms), infer from what one has read what they need, so that one can then behave relative to others in a fashion that will make them feel comfortable. Doing so demonstrates, by the way, that one not only has empathy for those around one, but regards them as one’s equal—neither inferior nor superior to oneself. The other may himself or herself feel inferior to oneself, but by treating that other as an equal, one helps that other person change his or her self-image.

It’s possible, of course, that the other does feel superior to oneself, and therefore believes that s/he deserves deference. By treating such a person as one’s equal one makes some slight (or more!) contribution to “bringing him down a notch.” That is, if one refuses to treat one’s “superiors” with deference, this may help them gain the understanding that we are all equal in being different, but different in kind rather than degree—so that any claim that one is superior to another is purely arbitrary, without a basis in reality.

If, in one’s upbringing, one were taught—everyone were taught—that in interacting with others one should make a sincere effort to make those others feel comfortable, our world would be very different from the one that we are currently forced to live in. In saying “different” what I mean, of course, is that it would be a far more pleasant place to live—for an implication of such a situation is that if one gained more “success” than others, one’s empathy for others would result in ensuring that the needs of others were met, to the best of one’s ability. That one’s actions, however, would be carefully conceived and executed, to ensure that the recipients of one’s help would be able to maintain their self-respect.

In such a world there might by variations in wealth, but there would not be the extreme variation that exists today—the worst inequality in the “developed” world today being in the United States! And the inequality that did exist would have no significance, given that those who had wealth would ensure that that those lacking wealth would have their physical and psychological needs met.

With everyone having their needs met it should be possible to address, in a meaningful way, the major problem that we humans face today—our interference in earth’s natural cycles (e.g., the carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous, sulfur, etc., cycles). Since the Agricultural Revolution of 10,000 years ago we humans have acted as if there were no Earth System, and especially since the Industrial Revolution (i.e., beginning around 1750 CE) have been stressing Earth System through our activities—including our “production” of more and more humans!—that have been inputting excesses into the System (such as carbon and nitrogen).

The “excess” that has been given most attention in recent years is that of carbon in the form of CO2 (i.e., carbon dioxide), with the excess carbon that we have been pouring into the atmosphere via our burning of fossil fuels, resulting in global warming—with the danger that this will accelerate within a few years, resulting in a severe culling of the human population, perhaps to the point of extinction. It is important to recognize, though, that our other “excesses” also have harmful consequences associated with them, perhaps as harmful (or more!) than that associated with carbon.

What makes it unlikely, however, that we humans will rectify this excess situation—in spite of the fact that ecological scientists understand, reasonably well, the nature of our problem—is that few in this society have been brought up to be gentlemen and ladies in the sense as described above. Instead, so many in our midst have acquired—either though being taught or via their life experiences—one sort of ideology or another—economic, political, religious, etc. As a consequence, their view of the world is distorted by the lens—i.e., the ideology—through which they view the world.

In effect, although the fact of the matter is that they are an integral part of Earth System—in that it affects them, and they affect it—they act as if they were apart from it. Granted that their effects on Earth System have not become obvious until relatively recently—via the diligent efforts of an army of dedicated scientists. But although scientists—and especially recently—have made an effort to popularize their findings, when one listens to what our leaders—governmental, corporate, etc.—have to say, one realizes that either these leaders are not informing themselves regarding these scientific findings, or are too occupied with immediate matters to give the future any serious thought.

This does not bode well for our future as humans! Given that we cannot look to our “leaders” for leadership (!), our only hope lies in individual/small group efforts—not to try to halt further warming (for that is not possible) but, rather, to engage in those pre-adaptive activities that might allow them to survive once “runaway” begins.

If there are survivors of this “holocaust”—a term appropriate here, given that global warming is likely to cull most of the world’s population—let us hope that they raise their children to be free of any ideology, and be ladies and gentlemen in the sense described above (rather than owning horses!).

Al Thompson retired over seven years ago from an engineering (avionics) firm in Milwaukee. His e-mail address is: sven3475@gmail.com. Read other articles by Alton.