Populist leaders’ lack of good manners harms us all
President Trump’s recent remarks about the British ambassador to the US Sir Kim Darroch and Prime Minister Theresa May were astonishingly rude.
Let me remind you what happened: last week a series of confidential memos were leaked in which the ambassador had called the Trump administration "incompetent", "inept" and "insecure". Just to prove that his administration was none of the above, Trump tweeted that the diplomat in question was a "pompous fool" and "the wacky ambassador foisted upon the United States is not somebody we are thrilled with, a very stupid guy".
He went on to suggest that the ambassador should instead be critical of his own prime minister, Theresa May, for her "failed Brexit negotiation", saying that he (Trump) had advised May on "how to do that deal but she went her own foolish way".
If you are not shocked by the language and tone of Trump’s remarks, then it reflects how rudeness has now become an undisputed part of public life. The president of the United States, a global superpower and the so-called leader of the free world has progressed from insulting political opponents, the press and the women in his country to insulting international allies, prime ministers and diplomats.
But he’s not alone in this sort of behaviour. It is the sort of behaviour exhibited by populist and authoritarian leaders all over the world. They insult and incite. They behave with arrogance and contempt towards those around them. Basic courtesy and protocol are completely ignored as they behave like coddled child-emperors might -- lounging in their seats at international conferences when all the other leaders are standing to acknowledge the arrival of their peers, eating at state banquets before the speeches have concluded or the guests have begun…
Why are they all being so bad mannered? Is it just something associated with narcissistic politicians or does it have to do with the accelerating decline of good manners in this day and age? In the cases of the US president and the Pakistani prime minister and the man who may be Britain’s next prime minister it certainly cannot be attributed to a lack of opportunity or being disadvantaged. These men, all of them, come from privileged backgrounds and have rubbed shoulders with people observant of etiquette and good manners. They have all been lucky enough to study at elite schools where these niceties are considered important. So it’s not even as if they can plead ignorance or disadvantaged backgrounds…
The wider issue though is the impact that this spoilt brat-type behaviour has on public life and society in general. When individuals occupying the highest offices of the land behave with such a total lack of decorum, they set an example (a bad one) for others. Their followers begin to regard their rudeness as an admirable trait and they begin to emulate their behaviour. Thus they lower the tone of public life and turn it into a vulgar and ugly arena.
We all need to reflect on whether or not we consider good manners a key component of a civilised society? And if we do, then we should do something about it.
This reminds me of a conversation I had many years ago with a playwright friend. I lamented that schools were no longer teaching students basic social manners such as standing up to acknowledge teachers. She disagreed vehemently with my view, saying that such customs were outdated and were just expressions of power aimed at oppressing younger people. Respect, she argued, must be earned not forced. That may be true but what’s wrong with social courtesies that acknowledge the presence of someone or show some basic consideration? Good manners are disappearing from society not just because young people disagree with the idea but because neither schools nor families consider it something worth teaching.
As despotic leaders become ruder and ruder and more and more people applaud them for it, our societies become less tolerant and more violent. Some courtesies do matter. So, we should all try to mind our manners…