Skip to main content
The Daily Paradox

The Daily Paradox: a baseline level of public decency

The title is borrowed from some words in a Financial Times article* by Andre Sullivan. Even though I deplore Mr Sullivan’s need to use so many four letter words, he makes a great point about intrusive, mind numbing noise in a world that seems bereft of understanding peace or peacefulness. (A baseline level of public decency actually also includes words, Andre!)

Forget the words for a moment and focus on the issue of behaviour. We all have a view about our own behaviour, hoping that it is, for the most part, decent, knowing that now and then we lapse from our pristine standards into gibberish disgust. We forget that behaviour is not about us but about the other person – the recipient, not the perpetrator. Behaving decently may satisfy our own image of who we are but if that is all we do it for it will appear egregious. Really decent behaviour is to make life rational and calm for those we must deal with.

Diplomats understand this.

But what is a baseline level of public decency? I’m tempted to answer with one word – Singapore. It is certainly one of the reasons that I have lived here for half my life. Perfect? Of course not. Censored – as some people seem to think? Not at all like the way a totalitarian state is censored, but politeness counts for a lot.  I often have criticisms of the way things are done, and publish my views in the Daily Paradox. But I am not by nature rude and I won’t be in what I say in Singapore or anywhere else. Castigating, yes; rude, no. Nobody has objected so far.

You can only be provocative by being rude. You can be very effective by being clever. Dennis Skinner’s response to the Speaker of the British House of Commons is a good example. Mr Skinner had said in the Chamber of the house that half the Conservatives were crooks. The Speaker, grappling with his or her ever increasing difficulties in controlling a group that has certainly lost the concept of a baseline of public decency, demanded that Mr Skinner apologise. He did so by saying “Half the Conservatives are not crooks”. I don’t often have a lot of time for Mr Skinner but on this occasion I congratulate him. Absolutely.

A more mundane way of approaching this is to consider what basic manners are. They change over time, of course. Their purpose never changes. It is to communicate effectively. That means to get the person you are addressing to consider what you are saying, to understand your point of view and maybe even adopt it. To achieve this with torture is widely (still, I think) deplored. Bullying is also torture though the world may be slow to recognise it. Whatever the process, it is so obviously self-defeating that one wonders about the sanity of those who use it.

My oft repeated case that while I am in this world I am happy to have my fellow citizens as my God seems to have struck a note with many people while not in any way distracting them from their beliefs.  Reason doesn’t have to be right.

Good manners are so inspiring when you see them. They tell of what a paradise might be like – not forever agreeing but always considering. No world can approach happiness without people treating each other politely.

Can we establish a modern baseline of public decency? It would make us happier.

And we could even forgive Andre his four-letter foray.

Good morning
John Bittleston

* FT 23Mar24

How is your baseline level of public decency? Probably like mine, in need of a dust and brush up. If you feel like doing so please – [email protected]