Sunday, April 16, 2006

The Tipping Point

The NYTimes is running a story about the new reputation building for New York City: New York as the city of civility. Many contend that laws directed toward improving behavior at the ballgame, on the subway, and in the movie theater are changing the "feel" of the city, helping to maintain the atmosphere of a family-friendly city that still knows when to put the kids to bed. Foremost among the "many" are city council members and boards of supervisors, ball players, and theater owners. It's against the law now to throw things onto the field at Shea stadium, to put your feet up on a neighboring seat on the subway, or to take your child of ten (or younger) to the movie theater after 10:00 ... count me a BIG fan of this last "rule" in particular.

Yet, the focus on social politics has a scarey underbelly for me. As much as I can be drawn to the idea of living into some nostalgic recollection of "the way we were," I worry about the "price tag" of inviting lawmakers to engineer new meaning for the right to privacy, the boundary of censorship, or the responsibilities for adulthood and parenting. I'd pay a fair share more for an evening at a hotel without children in the pool, and if any hotel enforces a "no child" zone after 9:00, I am so there, but do I believe it a good idea for the city/state to make the law? No. No matter the gain or the temptation I endure to trade away my choice for a night of quiet in the halls, I'll leave the negotiation for greater measures of civility in shared space to the exchange between citizens face-to-face.

Peter Post, director of the Emily Post Institute, would agree. He suggests that rather than more legislation, New York might better invest in a public relations campaign. "Good behavior" can simply not be forced on unwilling people, Post would argue. He suggests that we may be recovering a willingness to insist on the right of mutually composing shared public spaces, the right of expecting a civil measure of deference. "I think we've reached a tipping point with rudeness," he says. "Instead of people quietly putting up with rude behavior, they're finally saying, 'I don't have to put up with that anymore.'"

Ok. Ok. But can we make the definition of "rude" sit still for long enough for most of us to agree?

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narrator said...

I always worry about legally enforcing complex social rules. Benito (Rudy) Giuliani was big on this in New York, from banning street performers (the music bothered him) to surrounding City Hall with barbed wire (pre 9/11) because "people walking into the building disturbed [him]." The problem is always that it is the social rules of those in power that are enforced, which continues to segregate our society into castes. The Victorian Britons did this very well - you didn't behave well enough to be treated as a full human being.

It sounds so nice - "we'll be polite" - but it is, or is dangerously close to, an instrument of oppression.

Mary Godwin said...

You express the concern better than I did: Whose "polite" will govern the public? Whose measure of "being bothered" will guide the legislation? Barbed wire bothers me, and people left hungry in a nation of wealth bothers me. You make the point that "social politics" is as much an instrument of legislated segregation as one to manage shared public space. I couldn't agree more.