Sunday, July 8, 2012

Civility Revisited

Above the steady beat of the treadmills and exercise bikes, above the music and the whirring of two fans, above the other sounds, human and mechanical, of the fitness center where I was trying to exercise yesterday, I could not escape the loud voice of a man on his cell phone, talking non-stop. Perhaps the volume of his conversation, which lasted more than fifteen minutes, as documented by my treadmill monitor, was due to the competing sounds around him. Maybe he thought that it was too hot for him to go outside for his call or, more likely, that doing two things at once made good sense.

In any case, he was in violation of the center's policies. When the manager finally went over and gently suggested something about not talking so much, the man, a big guy in his late twenties, kept on talking, telling his listender about the many great restaurants he liked in various cities, as if I and my fellow patrons were non-existent, as if the policies were for others. He showed no awareness of the center as a public place where private conversations are inappropriate.

I was not about to confront this guy, who was built like a linebacker, but I wanted to tell him that civility--something increasingly lacking in our time--means some awareness that others have the right to have their own privacy respected. That he was not exercising on a desert island. But he would have seen me as an old crank.

As I plodded away on my treadmill, before finally giving up in disgust, I recalled having recently written about the lack of communal awareness so apparent in our culture, as evidenced in the ongoing health care debate. The common good is, for more and more people, never considered: only the individual's freedom, needs, problems, and tastes. Yet reasonable thinkers know that restraints on individual freedom are often necessary for the good of the whole society to function.

What is apparent on the moral and political level is also seen in everyday life, in what Christopher Lasch once called The Culture of Narcissism. He first published that book in 1978; he is no longer around. I wonder what he would say about the way the social media (texting, I-pods, etc.) and the cell phone (in use even when some people drive) have exacerbated the social problems he isolated, the culture of "Me first." Which is now quite often "Me Only." If Lasch were to re-issue his book, he could call it "The Culture of Hypernarcissism."

Rabbi Hillel said long ago: "If I don't think of myself, who will? Yet if I think only of myself, who am I?" Without such a balance, we are doomed.

The young guy talking on the treadmill has never heard of this, or if he has, he has dismissed it, since he apparently thinks only of himself. Very sad. We all suffer--not just those of us in the fitness center.

1 comment:

Kurt said...

Such a wonderful observation and commentary on something I notice all the time, think about whenever I see it, and could never capsulize as you have here! I think you have perfectly summed up the focus of our culture.

I just finished reading Ill Fares the Land, and while Tony Judt doesn't quite get down to the basis of the malaise, he sure approximates it and you've gotten close to the bottom of it!

Keep up the wonderful blogging - I love it so!