While walking down the street last week, I heard a young man behind me on his cell phone using sexually explicit language. I turned and looked at him.
“Wha’?” he said.
I tried to explain that in my opinion this is a public place and that his was a private conversation that needed to be in sequestered space. Novelist Amy Tan says linguists tell us, “We are what we speak.”
In his book Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy (NY: Basic Books, 1998), Stephen L. Carter’s says fellow passengers on a train need courtesy in order to get along in deference to each other in such a small shared space. Think of office workers: They share a space; they are not alone.
A man once held up rush hour traffic in Washington, D.C. by his threat to jump from a bridge along the commuters’ beltway. He infuriated the other drivers who shared the space; he was not alone. However, the State of Minnesota will tell them a driver’s license is a privilege and not a right.
While June Jones (Jones, LeAlan and Lloyd Newman, Our America: Life and Death on the South Side of Chicago, N.Y.: Scribner, 1997) was not pleased with some of the destructive decisions her adult children made, she said, “I think they each had a right to live their life the way they chose.” Some would argue likewise that the man on that bridge had a right to choose to end his life in the place and in the way he chose. As for the other commuters, Carter says, “Our duty to be civil to others does not depend on whether we like them or not.”
We may not like the “falling-down pants” so popular right now among young men; still, they deserve our civility. In 1968, the equivalent of falling-down pants was my friend’s long hair. When the high school principal told him to cut it, he used an expletive. He promptly got expelled. Stable norms become traditions. I hear folks say they hope falling-down pants don’t become one and they can’t wait for them to end.
That young man on that street corner using sexually explicit language said my religious beliefs must be behind my taking offense. It was civility, not religion, that I was requesting of him. Our legal restrictions and our moral responsibilities are not always the same. “You can’t legislate morality,” the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “but we can regulate behavior.” That young man could regulate his outdoor behavior.
“Isn’t conforming a way of drawing closer to other people?” Czech writer Milan Kundera asked. I wasn’t asking that young man to be closer to me.
“We require civility precisely to mediate our relationships with those we do not love,” Carter explains. My disgust didn’t punish him; I could only try to persuade. I asked him, “Would you use that language around your mother?” and he said he had. She said, “Do you see me standing here?”
The Golden Rule is about civility, and America is not as much about borders as about beliefs and values in common, says Carter.
“Easy is cheated,” Carter quotes Faulkner. It might have been easier to say nothing to that young man, but I’d be cheated of clean air.
Carter dubs it, “Bounded discourse,” the things we can’t discuss. That young man walked away, abruptly ending any discourse and reminding me of the University of St. Thomas commencement speaker who called his speech a dialogue when in fact he had the podium all to himself. He was the only one being heard.
Or the speaker at Hamline University who used incendiary language and told me she was “only reporting.” She was influencing.
Elizabeth Ellis is the mother of three grown children, a college graduate, a 10-year veteran of the Foreign Service and a native of the Twin Cities. She welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.