On Civility (National Post March 27,2007)

I’m glad Saturday’s Post brought the loss of public civility in public to the fore. I am old enough to remember a time when extreme rudeness and coarse language were not tolerated, because it was understood that such behaviour offended a collectively respected code. When I was young, if someone swore in public, almost any adult felt free, and even obliged, to scold the offender, who in turn, however unrepentant, accepted that adult’s right of  censure. The idea of a certain public standard of dress and behaviour was accepted by everyone, which created a balnce between what can be stressful physical proximity to one’s fellow citizens with a freedom from fear of forced intimacy.
Today we wouldn’t dream of reproaching the expletives of the foul-mouthed for fear of unleashing a great deal more of them in indignant return. Coarse language is ubiquitous, and the people using it – not just youth – have no sense of transgression, not only in the casual use of expletives, but in the ‘over-sharing’ of intimate revelations. Last week for example, waiting in line in a dépanneur, I overheard – I was compelled to overhear – one boy (maybe 17) telling his friend that he would break up with his girlfriend except for the fact that she gave … satisfaction in areas I would rather not have heard about in the copious detail that followed.
The dispiriting part was that he wasn’t intentionally trying to shock anyone; there are simply no boundaries anymore between private and public discourse. The poet Robert Frost was so right when he said that "Good fences make good neighbours." The traditional behavioural and speech codes with which I grew up were exactly that. The loss of this invisible fence, which used to allow people to move about freely, while remaining ensconced, so to speak, in their own psychological  back yards, causes a great deal of unspoken stress, I think, but we have become resigned to it because of our general impotence to relieve it.
One’s retrospective stress comes to light when an opportunity to relieve it does by serendipity present itself. That is what happened to me recently, and because I seized the opportunity in a way that defied the current habit of affected indifference to incivility, I took the time to analyze it.
Here is what happened: I take a bus to my gym twice a week. At that time of morning it is usually crowded, with a number of parents escorting their children to school or day care on the way to work. On this occasion I was standing directly behind the driver (an important detail), beside a father and his perhaps 5-year-old child, and facing a seated man of about 40 who was talking (loudly) into his cellphone, oblivious to all around him. He had just uttered the phrase “and I said to him, listen you bag of shit … ” when I flung off a generation’s worth of timidity and found myself saying, quite sternly, “Hey, that’s inappropriate language – there’s a kid here.”
The cellphone guy was astounded. So was I. Why had I taken such a risk? Because, as I later realized, I had experienced, in Malcolm Gladwell’s famous trope, a “blink” instant, summed up the situation and realized his position was indefensible: while normally I would be afraid of blowback, in this case I could intervene with guaranteed personal safety. He couldn’t walk away from me. He also couldn’t physically do anything to me (I was protected by the crush of people, all of whom in the immediate vicinity were now discretely alert for the fallout to my temerity). He couldn’t call me a bitch or worse in response because he knew I could simply lean over and ask the driver to protect me from harassment. Also, the kid’s very large and commanding-looking father was now looking at him in an interested way.
(Did I mention the father and child were black and the cellphone guy was white? I’ll be honest. If the cellphone guy had been black, I would have stayed shtumm. Such are the times we live in. Of course there was the risk that the dad might take my intervention as patronizing, but I had “blinked” that his parental instinct would put him on my side, and I was right.)
Now the cellphone guy said to his interlocutor that he had to get off the phone and would call him back. Ha! Already a victory for me. We then got into a little discussion on the theme of how was it my business what he said. I gave a little lecture on public space and civility. He was very angry, but the next victory for me was that, warily glancing at the big dad, at no time during our exchange did he use another expletive. He did call after me, “I hope you die a very unhappy death” as, all my points made, I threaded my way down the bus, which I found rather curious and unimaginative, as how could it be otherwise, but no matter. My final victory? As the dad and kid made their way off the bus at the next stop, cellphone guy said to him, “I’m sorry if I offended you…”.
You’re probably wondering how safe I would have felt if cellphone guy had followed me off the bus when I disembarked. But in my “blink” assessment of the situation, I had that eventuality sorted out too. If he had followed me out with hostile intent, and I found myself alone with him, I would simply have kicked away one of his crutches and run for it.


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