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Home » General Grumpiness » Toward a Civil Society; Or, Just Because You Have Your Four-Way Flashers On Doesn’t Mean You Can Park Wherever You Want, You Dick!

Toward a Civil Society; Or, Just Because You Have Your Four-Way Flashers On Doesn’t Mean You Can Park Wherever You Want, You Dick!



(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,, 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:

  1. 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!
  2. 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.
  3. Lead by example. There’s a great TED Talk by behavioural economist Dan Ariely ( 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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?




  1. PhDiva says:

    I often lament the fact I did not grow up during the days of white gloves and coordinated outfits (hold the hairspray and girdle). We are far too slovenly in our approach to — and our understanding of — a truly civil society. My only quibble is that at least Rob Portman demonstrated that people can change the way they think. People can take new experiences and information and think about the world differently. What is truly stultifying is an inability to adapt: “My grandfather was Conservative, my dad was Conservative, so by jiminy, I’m Conservative! Just because.” That kind of non-reasoning gets to me just as much as . . . people who wear their pjs to WalMart.

    • Philster999 says:

      Quibble duly noted! And you’re right, as long as people still have some capacity to learn from their experience, all is not completely lost. (Though it is problematic if people are only open to gaining knowledge from their immediate, first-hand connection to the world. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio…”)

      Thanks for the read and the dialogue. PJ

  2. bronxboy55 says:

    My dear friend and fellow cynical idealist: Rome is indeed going up in flames, and it may just have to burn to the ground before we can start over. The society we had — or thought we had — ran on things like knowledge, sensitivity, tolerance, compromise, fairness, honesty, and hard work. At least it was supposed to. But values that were once essential are now considered corny, old-fashioned, and naive. I guess that’s us. Do we keep spitting on the fire, or do we run for the hills?

    I like this: “…egocentric hiss emanating from the top of your brain stem.”

    • Philster999 says:

      “Cynical idealist,” indeed. C’est moi! Strange dichotomy, but I guess we have to play the cards we’re dealt. Not sure what the answer is. I refuse to head for the hills, but I’m running out of saliva…

      Thanks for the read and the, as ever, thoughtful comments. PJ

  3. Penny says:


    Of course you know that I love when you are on your very own soapbox and would love this one.

    Even 12 year olds should be able to dress themselves appropriately for a shopping trip even if it is the local Walmart. However, perhaps their fashion guidance comes in form of a mom who wears yoga pants to the office. Even with a dressy blouse…this is not office wear. It matters none that you are an itty bity size 2 either. They were made for the yoga studio. I suppose I should have said shirt or top as ‘blouse, may just sound ‘old foggy’ like.

    Keep on writing ‘my’ kind of stories and parking at the rear of the parking lot which noted you do on a daily basis!

  4. Tom Marshall says:

    David Attenborough identified the edge in his birds series where the male bird, who makes the prettiest nest, gets the babe. Maybe that’s why I drove a motorcycle in university. Why do some people, who live in trailer parks (nothing against people who may live in a trailer park), always have new shiny cars that cost more than the house they live in? Is it really a means to procreate?

    I agree with sacrifice and re-alignment of our priorities. We have been trained to be consumers–to buy and buy to have meaning and purpose, to purchase our way to happiness, and live beyond our means. It is a wise individual that chooses their level of living rather than just spending what they do not have at the moment, or would have in a year’s time. It sounds so easy, so easy–yet so hard. Could it be we’ve created a system that does not allow us the freedom to separate ourselves from it.

    Even with your gas rationing there is the sense of a few deciding what is best for the masses. I was impressed how the government enrolled the children to mark the water level in the tub–what better police than children. Thomas Jefferson also believed the few should rule over the many, because there is a belief, like you’ve mentioned, that people as a whole are as dumb as sheep. Somehow Rousseau’s Social Contract (I’ve read some of his Confessions) comes to mind. Now do not be deceived in thinking I understand it all. I’ve honestly started to read some and promptly dreamt of sheep jumping the fence.

    I’ll throw out the following:

    “IT follows from what has gone before that the general will is always right and tends to the public advantage; but it does not follow that the deliberations of the people are always equally correct. Our will is always for our own good, but we do not always see what that is; the people is never corrupted, but it is often deceived, and on such occasions only does it seem to will what is bad.”

    I do wonder if the people of north America are deceived. Or is it just the will of the people?

    When you get down to it ancient wisdom literature (writings from Egypt, Babylon, Israel, etc.) identified the power of life and the finality of death. “Better to be a live dog than a dead lion.” The dead do not remain long in the public mind and soon we’re all food for worms. It was common for the king to use wisdom to demonstrate his ability to rule and his understanding of life. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon were more than a gift to a wife but a king’s statement that he controlled life-even in a desert type climate. Could it be that world leaders and local politicians test their wisdom before those with whom they rule? It seems now that our rulers have modeled selfish behavior and the masses have followed suit.

    Intriguing content, Phil. Sometimes it’s just a rant, and at other times it is a Rant where something more is said. I agree with you in there being more said, and your Rant speaks on a deeper level.

  5. Ohdeerestme says:

    Oh, we think way too much alike. Moving to the States, I’ve encountered way too much hazard light syndrome: picking up donuts at the end of a long line, parking in the middle of the street to talk on your phone, WalMart dress code is a scary thing. And, my favorite, having discussions about the gun you are currently hiding on your body, loudly on your cellphone, at Blockbuster… Goodness me. Sometimes I feel like I am completely removed from normal society. Phil, I sure enjoy what you post… That’s for being so engaging and easy to talk to!

    • Philster999 says:

      Yikes, you’ve definitely one-upped my crochety rant with the gun card! I guess one of the good things about being Canadian is that as annoying and un-civil as folks may become, at least they’re usually not packing heat, eh?

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