So here’s my thought for the day: Is civility — in the form of attention to other people’s comfort and feelings — what sets the South apart?
Somebody asked Paula Deen what makes the South special, and she said (in her very roundabout fashion) that manners come first in the South from the time we are very young. Not just ma’am and sir, but understanding that you must never hurt anyone’s feelings. This is what fuels the popular idea of “Southern hospitality,” she suggested.
And while I would not normally think of Paula Deen as an arbiter of Southern taste (too much cream of mushroom soup), this really gave me pause.
It was absolutely the clearest thing my mother taught me: I would get an out-of-character, clench-teethed “Hush!” if I violated it. Company comes first. Other people’s feelings and comfort come before your own — especially if they are disadvantaged in any way, even by unfamiliar surroundings. And I suppose it’s what I’ve been trying to beat into my own boys’ heads. I always say if I can just raise them to be nice to other people, to consider others’ feelings in all they do, I will have done my job.
Last night, I watched Atticus teach Scout that very thing. This was the first time I’d seen To Kill a Mockingbird as a mother, and I now think it should be given out in birthing hospitals with birth certificates. Atticus has his big words, and he always takes the time to explain things to Scout, but it’s his actions that are really important in the instruction of his children.
He turns a quiet other cheek to town talk about his defense of Tom Robinson. He helps Scout understand that Mr. Cunningham is embarrassed by his poverty. Calpurnia tells Scout that Walter Cunningham is her guest and if he wants to eat the tablecloth, you let him do it! Atticus tells the children all along to respect Boo Radley’s privacy, but it’s Heck Tate who sets the ultimate example to protect this vulnerable soul. And in the end, Scout makes the connection between killing a songbird and failing to protect the innocent.
My favorite lesson from To Kill a Mockingbird is how kindness overcomes ugliness. Remember Atticus regaling Mrs. DuBose about her flowers, just being thoughtful enough to know what would flatter her? Scout naively violating the field of hate between her family and the gathered lynch mob, simply by being polite and connecting with Mr. Cunningham? It’s tough to keep on being ugly when someone is killing you with kindness. When Atticus walks away from Bob Ewell after he spits in his face, it’s not only the worst thing he could have done to Ewell — it is the ultimate example for Jem about courage and civility.
Back to Paula Deen . . . She refused to stand above folks on a stage yesterday and instead walked out into the crowd and touched or looked at every person there. She put people at ease with her celebrity and welcomed them into her personal space. What do you think she would have done if someone had asked her a rude question about, say . . . cream of mushroom soup? She would have deflected it with humor (bless your heart) and turned the other cheek.
I realize that there is a basic conflict in this notion of respect for individual humanity and the South’s racial history. And I realize that people from other parts of the world share this value. But it is (or was) true that selfishness is the ultimate rudeness in these parts. And Southern culture once conspired to inculcate this concern for others into its young, and to enforce it by rigid example.
So what do you think? Is this just another sentimental manufactured myth? Or are manners, in this sense, what defines the South?