"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Jerks, Boors, And Quiet Cars

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a writer for The Atlantic and in a recent article (3.12.13) he tells of how he is angered and appalled at the violation of the rules of the Quiet Car, that supposed sanctuary of calm, good manners, and propriety on Amtrak.  Why, he wonders, do people who intend to use their cellphones, even get on the Quiet Car?  Because they don’t care about others, he opines.

I've never quite been able to figure out why they come to the Quiet Car. It's not a matter of not knowing the rules, so much as a matter of not caring. It's almost as if the offenders regard the regular cars as a public lavatory, and the Quiet Car as a private bathroom where they may repair to handle their shit.

Hmmm….This ill-tempered and intemperate mini-screed is only partially right.  Yes, mothers are definitely not doing their job today, and sweet, cuddly little babies are turning out more and more to be assholes, jerks, and boors; but that is not the issue here.  The Quiet Car is a refuge for those who live in the past, who long for Victorian manners and the quiet reading rooms of posh clubs where a respectful silence is the rule.  These antediluvian species like sitting before the fire with a good book, musing among the forget-me-nots on a sunny hillock, knitting, puffing on a good pipe, holding hands, dining by candlelight, and listening to the first birdsongs of Spring.

The blaring of a cellphone ringtone is like a rifle shot to this old-fashioned, insular, and persnickety bunch.  Talking on a cellphone in the Quiet Car is not just an unwelcome intrusion, or breaking the rules.  It is a sign of social disassembly – a renting of the community fabric; a breakdown of respectability and good will.  Worse, it is a dehumanizing act. Far from seeing it as a highly interactive social act, these latter day Victorians see it as a threat to personal, face-to-face, intimate relationships.  The cellphone and its offspring, the  I-Pad, PC, tablet, and video game platform, are inimical to the cohesiveness of society, corroding the concept of quiet reflection, meditation, and personal inquiry.  The cellphone is not just a phone.  It is the Cyber-Devil. No wonder why they get so upset.

For anyone under 40, these Quiet Car Nazis, these pseudo-intellectual pains-in-the-ass are the problem, not cellphone users.  Who needs a Quiet Car anyway, they say?  It takes up good space, an unnecessary sop to a few prickly, outmoded, and testy riders.

Mr. Coates, I am afraid that you are in a quickly shrinking minority, and your numbers are getting smaller.  You may  glare, hiss, and scowl at offenders of silence; but each time you ride, I am sure you have noticed that there are more interruptions, more breaches of sanctity, more unconscionable acts of incivility.

It only gets worse. Once airlines permit cell phone use, the final wall between civility and incivility will be gone. Prating, yakking, schmoozing, and bantering will be the rule.  It is a well-documented fact that people talk louder on cellphones than they do in a personal conversation.  Why is that on the cellphone we bark while we whisper conspiratorially to our partner next to us on the train?

There is of course a remedy which troglodytes hate just as much as ringtones and loud talking – the ear buds that close off the listener to the outside world.  For these young with-it 20-somethings, interior space is what counts when one is not socially interacting.  Not the kind of interior reflection you and I might imagine, one of thought, subtlety, and insight; but music – their music, their tunes, their playlist.  I cannot imagine walking down a street or biking on a leafy track in the woods with music blaring in my ears drowning out the cry of a hawk, the scurrying of voles in dry leaves, the wind in the trees, the rippling of a brook; but I am one of a disappearing breed. 

Now let’s return to the white dude invading your space in the bar whom you place in the same category as Quiet Car Intruders. He and the cellphone users, you say, suffer from the same assumption about personal space. Why doesn’t he know the rules of the game?  Why can’t he suss out the situation, decide when it is appropriate to speak and when it is not, and act accordingly?

I think what we have here is a working definition of an asshole -- a person who demands that all social interaction happen on their terms. Assholes fill our various worlds. But the banhammer only works in one of them. \

Here is where I go back to mothers.  My wife tried very hard – and succeeded – in bringing up our children with a sense of respect for others. When she scolded my teenage son for waving his fork around like a baton and shoveling in his food, he belligerently replied, “Why should I? Manners are just bourgeois artifacts that serve no purpose except for parent-masters to exert dominance and control”.

“Manners are not for you”, my wife quietly reminded him.  “They are for me.  I am the one who has to duck the scraps of spit-soaked food flying off your fork.  I am the one who has to look at you hunkered down over your plate, mashing ground meat into your gob and making more noise eating than the dog”.

An epiphany: “Manners are for other people”.

The asshole at the bar who didn’t realize that you and your wife were getting an intimate buzz on hadn’t been raised right. His boorish, disrespectful behavior had nothing to do with the Cell Phone Intruders. Yes, one would have hoped that a little motherly discipline on the subject of respect would have carried over to the Quiet Car, but that is a lot to expect.  There simply are too many cellphone users for whom cyberspace is the only space, and they will only multiply until the Quiet Car disappears.  Assholes are another problem altogether.  They combine retarded intelligence, indifferent upbringing, and bad genetics.  There is an asshole gene, despite the fact that liberals who cling to the nurture part of nature-nurture will not admit it.  Fortunately it is like warts or deformed feet.  Not too many people have it and the rest of us simply have to put up with them.

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