(Spoiler alert: In case you haven’t figured it out from the title, this is going to be something of a curmudgeonly post. What my old copywriting pal and wordsmith Margaret MacQuarrie, wordperson.ca, tags on her blog as “General Grumpiness”.)
I’m a fairly well-behaved, open-minded guy — in a charmingly uptight kind of way. (That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!) I’d like to be able to say that I strive to give folks the benefit of the doubt, but, truth be told, I don’t have a lot of faith in people to “do the right thing” when left to their own devices. One need only consider the last several bloodstained millennia of human history. The rise of the body corporate at the expense of the body politic. The obesity epidemic in the west. Reality TV.
And, in a way, it’s hard to blame people. Tens of thousand of years of instinct and conditioning, driven by that ancient reptilian brain of ours at the epicenter of our neural network, are difficult forces to bring under control. Back in the — evolutionary — day, it used to be if you could slice off even a little more for yourself than the next guy, gain the smallest of competitive advantages somehow, your genes would probably survive while theirs might perish. Greed was good.
But in an age of abundance, too much of a good thing — too much of anything, really — often ends up creating more problems than it solves. *Cue Supersize Me.* We can — and need to — do better.
As an architect, for example, I have always tried to champion more environmental sensitivity and efficiency in the projects I’ve been involved with. We could save huge amounts of resources and energy if we truly embraced green architecture — but we’re not going to get there if we leave it to people to voluntarily do the right thing. Sorry, we won’t. It’s hard. It costs more money and requires a far more thoughtful approach to the issues. It involves sacrifice and a re-alignment of priorities that we hardly feel the need to impose upon ourselves given that our neighbours are still driving their kids to soccer practice in humvees. We’re not as bad as that after all, we like to tell ourselves. And it’s not like consumption — even the conspicuous kind — is illegal or anything.
Whenever I try to convince people that we may all very well need a little kick in the ass to do the right thing, I always use the example of rationing during the second world war. Combatant nations had only limited pools of resources (food, raw materials, gasoline, manufacturing capacity, etc.) with which to wage war, and it was imperative that these resources were effectively marshaled to defeat the enemy. People weren’t asked to do the right thing in this instance — limit your gas intake for example, because we need the fuel for our bombers — they were compelled to do right thing through the imposed rationing of scarce resources. And it worked. I admit it’s an extreme example, but the point remains the same. If people could have been trusted to do the right thing in the first place, they wouldn’t have had to have been compelled to do so via external forces.
It’s the same with civility, the largely unwritten laws of social conduct that prevent interactions within our communities from coming to a complete standstill as a result of our own intensely personal interests. In the first-world, at least, such interactions usually roll along fairly well. Still, I’m long-enough in the tooth at this point in my life to appreciate just how thin the veneer of civility actually is in our ostensibly civilized society. A season of involvement as a parent in any minor sports league makes this immediately evident (but that’s a whole ‘nother blog!). You put even a minimal stress on a group of otherwise normally functioning people and you don’t have to scratch too deeply to see the rules of common decency and consideration start to falter. *Cue the footage of Black Friday line-ups gone bad.* Then, unfortunately, all bets are off. This is why we need to embrace civility with renewed vigour — not because it greases the rails for other people, but, if we’re all participating as we should, because it helps to grease the rails for ourselves as well.
Manners, general decency, non-egocentric behavior. Who gives a crap about this archaic stuff anymore? I suggest we all should. It needs be at the heart of what we teach our children and teenagers. It’s about how to get along. When my mother was a student in the 1950’s and 60’s, she informs me, they actually had Civics classes. Imagine! An organized forum from which to share with children and young adults the concept that they had fundamental responsibilities within the culture they were lucky enough to be born into. That they were citizens and neighbours and it was vital for the vein of civic-mindedness to run deep if they were to maintain healthy, inter-dependent communities. (Of course, they also taught Latin back then, and the idea that an Africa-American might ever be elected as president of the Unites States seemed like an impossible dream, so perhaps backwards isn’t where I want to move this argument after all.)
We need to get it together. Here’s some food for thought:
- Four-way flashers do not absolve you from vehicular responsibility. “Parking’s pretty congested today so I’ll just park here in the barrier-free space [that’s architect-speak for the blue parking spot with the white wheelchair painted on it] in front of the Pharmacy. I seldom see any handicapped people parking here anyway, and I’ll be in and out before you know it. Just need get a Coke. And a pack of cigarettes. Oh, and a lottery ticket” [OK, so maybe I’m profiling just a little with this example]. “But not to worry, I’ll simply leave my four-ways on so everybody knows I’ll be right back. After all, it’d be rude to leave my car in the handicapped spot without the four-ways on.” Dick!
- Break the cycle of LCD TV. No, I’m not talking about your new 52” liquid crystal Samsung. I’m talking about lowest common denominator (LCD) television programming. Get a grip on yourselves, people. The Real Housewives of [insert name of city here], Honey Boo Boo, anything with a Kardashian in it. Really? Really?! This is the best we can do as human beings already a decade into the twenty-first century? They wouldn’t make this rubbish if we didn’t watch it, folks. We’re fiddling and Rome’s burning down around our ears.
- Lead by example. There’s a great TED Talk by behavioural economist Dan Ariely (http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_ariely_on_our_buggy_moral_code.html) that outlines some of the key difficulties with what he refers to as our “buggy moral code.” He suggests that most of us are willing to cheat a little — up to a level he refers to as a “personal fudge factor” — provided we’re fairly sure we can get away with it essentially unscathed. These proclivities, however, can be easily swayed by the behaviour of other individuals within our immediate surroundings. Where an atmosphere of virtue and honesty are made manifest, for example, people are far less inclined to cheat. Of course, the opposite is also true. And we call that the stock market.
- Put yourself in others’ shoes. The Golden Rule — “Do unto others, etc.” Always a classic regardless of religious affiliation (or lack thereof). Our brains are sophisticated enough at this point in our evolution that we shouldn’t actually have to experience something for ourselves first-hand in order to be able to develop a reasonable conclusion about it. Consider American Senator Rob Portman’s recent decision to support gay marriage in opposition to beliefs he had previously held throughout his life. Why the change? Because he recently learned his own son was gay. See the problem? If we have to be poor before we understand that poverty sucks, or die at the hands of someone of a different ethnicity to find the will to act against the horror of genocide, we’re really up the creek.
- Understand that civility demonstrates power, not weakness. This is a variation of lead by example. It means that we’re always paying it forward a little. We get to take the high ground when we do the right thing. We’re in control and conscious of the decisions we make to facilitate our interaction with others. It’s like anything else. You keep making good decisions about things over and over again — ignoring that sibilant egocentric hiss emanating from the top of your brain stem — and it soon becomes second nature. You’re not left constantly wondering what’s the right thing to do — you’re just doing it.
*THUMP* OK, that’s the sound of me stepping down from my soapbox. Thanks for letting me vent. Bottom line is that it’s better for all of us if we simply leave our — metaphorical — four-way flashers off and just park where there are actually empty spaces available that were designed to accommodate us. Yes, even if it’s at the far end of the parking lot and all we need is a Coke. And a pack of cigarettes. And a lottery ticket…
Oh yeah, and stop going to WalMart in your pajama bottoms. I mean, really, are you 12?