We’ve all experienced it: You’re driving along minding your own business when suddenly someone – often from away – makes a dumb and dangerous maneuver with their car, cutting you off and almost driving you off the road. And then, just for good measure, they give you that universal hand-gesture involving the notorious middle digit.
I’m sure you’ve asked yourself: What should be done with people like that?
It’s not widely known these days, but at one time here in New England “bad manners” were equated with “bad morals.” As such, colonial authorities, backed by stern church leaders, were harsh with those who exhibited bad morals or manners. I assume that dumb, dangerous driving and crude hand gestures would be considered by our colonial ancestors to be “bad manners.”
Just how harshly were offenders treated? In those tough, disciplined times offenders were punished by being placed in public pillories or stocks, and then their friendly neighbors came by and ridiculed them. Some particularly ill-mannered people were branded with red-hot irons and underwent public whippings. Because of these punishments many people in Puritan Massachusetts fled up here to Maine just to avoid such penalties. I know, you’re thinking that might explain the manners you see some Mainers exhibiting in public these days, but it’s more likely that those with bad manners will have Massachusetts plates and talk with thick Boston accents.
In colonial times people would be hauled before the authorities and punished for disobeying laws involving dress, cursing, scandal-mongering, lying, name-calling and flirting – even making ugly faces could get you pilloried. It doesn’t mention it in the history books, but I’m sure that making offensive hand gestures was on some Puritan’s list of ill-mannered things such as “unacceptable uses of the hand and finger.”
Can you imagine how busy authorities would be these days if they punished bad manners? If they punished only a fraction of those caught cursing, scandal-mongering, lying or name-calling they would need quite a crew of carpenters working almost non-stop just to supply the pillories and stocks.
And forget the general population, imagine if they only enforced laws regarding manners of just those in politics. The New Hampshire primary as we know it would cease to exist. All the politicians and their staffs would be pilloried on an hourly basis.
Around the time our nation was being formed such leaders as George Washington and Ben Franklin took the time to draw up elaborate codes of good behavior. Can you imagine our leaders getting involved in such projects today?
If we were to go back to such harsh punishments, I think we should only use them for real serious offenses, like getting in a 14-items or less express lane with more than the allowed 14 items. Wouldn’t you just like to drag those people out to the public square and put them in stocks for a few hours? You could list their grave offense on a sign next to the stock: “Knowingly and willingly got into a supermarket express lane with WAY more than allowed 14 items.”
Or, how about punishing people who bring their cell phone to the movies or the theater and leave then on just so everyone can hear their numb ring tone when it goes off during a crucial scene? How about people who intentionally take up two parking spaces in a crowded parking lot?
Branding and public whippings might be too harsh for our 21st century sensibilities, but I think pillories and stocks might be just what we need to teach some people around here some manners.
Maine storyteller John McDonald is the author of several bestselling books, including “Moose Memoirs and Lobster Tails,” a sequel to “A Moose and a Lobster.” He also entertains throughout New England, telling his Maine stories at banquets, conventions, conferences and other special events. Contact him at 207-899-1868 or firstname.lastname@example.org.