Thursday, October 22, 2009

Rage Against the Human-Powered Machine?

Or just rage? Or just lack of basic civility? I wrote an editorial for our local bike advocacy blog some time back regarding the everyday rudeness that bicyclists endure. At the time, several prominent examples of rude behavior generally by celebrities and politicians were in the news. Pundits and the 24/7 "news" networks seized on the sudden epidemic of rudeness and wondered if we had lost our basic sense of civility. My point was: yes, but it's not sudden, and it's not confined to high-profile events. It happens every day, especially to easy targets like people acting "differently" (i.e. riding bicycles).

Well, that's a pretty negative view of things, isn't it? I've been trying to be more positive about things like this, so I wanted to revisit the issue in a different forum. I just finished reading P.M. Forni's Choosing Civility (St. Martin's Griffin, 2002), which is just horribly written and not at all well-conceived, but has some interesting ideas. Although Forni stays positive about the potential for civil behavior (or, one might even go so far as to say overly fussy and fastidious behavior), the main point I took away from the book is that most people are not even basically civil to one another.

Okay, this seems to be getting worse and not better, doesn't it? Bear with me.

Instead of focusing on what people aren't doing to respect each other's space, time, and effort, let's focus on why we consider these things important. Most of us, myself included, who think people generally are less civil than they should be, tend to say things like, "nobody listens anymore" or "why doesn't anyone yield to pedestrians anymore?" The assumption is that people used to do these things, and now they don't, and we're the worse for it. But guess what? People have always not listened to and not respected the people around them. Always.

Rather than bash our heads against the wall because of all the incivility we see around us, and rather than holding grudges against entire groups of people (i.e. bicycists, drivers, etc.), I think the main thing we should all be concerned about is whether or not we as individuals can evaluate our actions at the end of every day and feel good about what we either did or did not do. It's not that the world is more uncivil or disrespectful now than it was back in the good ol' days, it's just that we now approach incivility in a clinical fashion, attempting to determine causes, effects, and cures. My arguement is that it's not a discrete social problem and it's not a symptom of larger issues, it's just part of living in proximity to other humans. If you can take individual responsibility for how you do that, then The Big Scary Problem of Incivility suddenly dissipates into a series of individual actions and choices. And that's where the changes can be made.