Wither the Public: The Increasing Colonisation of the Public Realm by the Individual

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I was on the bus the other day. Nothing revolutionary there, but hold on, as per usual these days, some Chatty Cathy was carrying on a rather boisterous conversation with an imaginary friend somewhere out in the ether it seemed to me until I caught sight of that now ubiquitous instrument of public nuisance, the cell phone, glued to her ear in the seat two over and one back from me. The bus was crowded, people standing in the aisles, and there, carrying on a conversation at top-lung as the bus lurched along, she sang off triumphantly: "No Way!!"

I know that civility is currently a great topic of hand-wringing and lamentation, and that a golden age of considerate and polite behaviour is often pointed to and mythologized in our collective consciousness as we deign our current age ‘degenerate’. The validity of this rumour is rather dubious, but it does seem to me that people, once, not so long ago, at least had a conception – a conception that more truly matched my own – about what was, and more particular to the case in hand, was not considered appropriate public behaviour, of a distinction between our Inside and Outside voice if you prefer. This distinction, and indeed the strict yet invisible boundaries that kept the two worlds of private and public apart, was maintained by a silent public consensus that came down menacingly upon all those playing at deviant. What, at the core of the human psyche, kept us from dragging our private lives into the public light of day was, to put it bluntly, social sanction.

That we don't all fawn over each other anymore in hideous sycophantry with the hope that our characters will be well judged publically is perhaps a good thing, but maybe some, however tiny it need be, concern for self-presentation would make the world, and especially the city, where we all share the same space, crammed in together, a better place to live.

How we behave in public, what is acceptable and not, seems to have veered sharply in the past decade, away from a timidity of public scrutiny into the fetishisation of it. We now revel in exposing ourselves, believing that we are in fact important, and certainly more important than the other people around us. We bask in the warm glow of obliviousness, in the outright disregard for the right of any other, for the claim that other people, other individuals are making to the use of a place. It has gone so far as to be able to witness a couple eating dinner at a restaurant, one half of who, eyes unfocused and tongue silent is ignored while the significant other – so significant as to necessitate a phone conversation at the dinner table – jabbers on in an Outside voice about inane topics better suited to a light whisper.

The city is for all intents and purposes a place of strangers, of difference, and thus of compromise and accommodation; a place that relies heavily, however unconsciously, on the Golden Rule to maintain a semblance of order.

It is easy to see this age of post-modernity, of all values and lifestyles and opinions as being equal and deserving of not simply respect but veneration as a culprit. However, such a claim would be incomplete. I would argue that the urban environment is in fact a pre-post-modern place (confused? Could this be a clue to what they mean by that alluring yet elusive title ‘inquiry into the post-postmodern age’? Doubtful.) Let me clarify. The city is the birthplace of post-modernism by a different name...tolerance: a place where, to some extent or another, these values were born and are of absolute necessity. Broad strokes indeed, but out of necessity, city dwellers are by far the most tolerant people on earth, either now, or a thousand years ago; its just the degree of this tolerance that has changed, shifted, broken and reformed.

(Tolerance is what is often pointed to as a great Canadian Value, and I would have to say, "ICK!" if this is what we are rallying around as a culture. Tolerance is not acceptance, or respect, but rather the ability to ignore. And it is this ability that makes cities possible, but not a nation. I digress...)

Yet tolerance is precisely that, tolerant. It is narrow and slightly off-putting. It is no more than a tacit understanding that while I may not like what you do, who you are, or even the smell of your food, I have no claim upon these things as long as you and I both abide the set of social boundaries that protect me from the details of your life that may upset me.

Does this sound harsh?

Maybe so, but while we like to play at multi-culturalism and inclusion, while we pretend that the values we hold are an actual representation of our internal dialogue it is worth recalling that we’ve only been living together in cities for a few thousand years, and that for a million or so years prior to that we killed and ate those whose food smelled different from our own. We’ve called a truce so as to take advantage of living in close proximity to each other, but this truce is now starting to wobble, to crumble just a little bit as I am now forced to sit through half of an entire conversation around the merits (and demerits) of thong underwear by girls barely old enough to wear underwear let alone think about panty lines or how drunk some underage idiot with his underwear hanging half-way out his far too baggy pants and baseball cap, stickers and tags intact brim straight and flat (I scream to myself and imagine in gleeful playfulness how satisfying it would be to walk over, grab the hat and tear off the tags while cracking the brim…baseball caps as fashion upset me a tad!) got over the weekend.

So, what indeed is at the core of this type of incivility? What is at the heart of our acquiescence to the degradation of the public space by the private whims of individuals?

There has always been a tension between the public and the private spheres, and neither should be seen as static or unchanging. In fact, some of the rights and activities that we now take for granted as being public in nature, were not fifty years ago; as indeed some of the things we are now forbidden to do in public were not always so. Thusly, I want not to lament the loss of Eden, but rather question why, and more importantly, how our public realm is falling increasing victim to the private demands of individuals.

It used to be that people talked to each other in public, face to face. Talking too loud on the bus to the guy next to you I suppose has always been a problem. But now, with the ubiquitousness of cell phone technology, it seems that our conception of what is private and what is public has become somewhat obscured. It is shifting, and maybe I'm just being grumpy (a charge often leveled against your beloved narrator) but it seems to me that it is not an expansion of rights or a natural progression towards a more inclusive city, but rather an invasion, a regression; a challenge to the truce necessary for city living.

I sat there for five minutes listening to someone I had no interest in whatsoever have a conversation with another person, who, if it is possible, I had even less interest in. People around me ignored as good little urbanites should, but failed in another, equally important task of guarding the public realm from unwelcome private intrusions. Part of tolerance is being aware of yourself in public, being aware of how you impact other people around you, of tolerating the rights of others not to be unduly intruded upon by yourself, or indeed, others. A city requires both a general, relatively passive ignorance of the lives of others, of strangers that are always around you, but also on the active maintenance of boundaries, of thresholds that guard against the intrusions of others.

What was happening on the bus, what happens continually throughout the city was a negligence by the public to protect itself against the individual. We ignored, but failed to maintain the boundaries of the bus as space for all to be, without undue intrusion by strangers into our lives. Nobody said a damn thing. Not I, not the annoyed-looking couple across from me. There was so little consideration paid to others, to those who must share this confined little space together, to the public quality of the space that I began to question the existence of a public sphere at all.

What is essentially happening is that public, common space, space we share with others around us is being appropriated by individuals for private purposes. The guy standing in line ahead of me at the bank, talking away to god-knows-who, has, through the glories of technology brought his office with him, his private space has been towed along as he ventures out into the commons.

Through the machinations of technology, we have slandered contemporary definitions of public, but perhaps in a more sinister vein, we have brought the private, our home and office, our interior lives into full view of the public. We have undermined the very core of urban life, the code that is written in the upward now downward glance of two strangers passing each other on the city street, in the delicate abstraction of standing in line, of sitting cheek to jowl on a city bus.

It’s as if we are considering the intrusion from a purely personal perspective, unsure as how to act as an individual, unsure how it might be seen for one person to demand a return of appropriated space. I speak only for myself here, but what stops me, makes me hesitate, is that what I would be doing by insisting that one person not act a certain way in my presence is in fact a new appropriation of this same space. What right do I have to regulate another’s behaviour? I’ll just ignore it instead.

Who's to blame for this? The individual transgressor, or the collective's refusal to confront this self-same Individual?

Unfortunately, it is the constant pushing of convention and boundaries that keeps us from falling ill as a society, keeps the culture from stagnating and becoming foul, and so it is with a heavy heart that I must blame Myself for not identifying clear boundaries for appropriate behaviour, for courtesy, for manners and enforcing them. But this is a societal issue foremost, and perhaps we need to ask ourselves what is wrong with our culture, what is it demanding of us that we feel the need to have cell phone at the ready, just within darting grasp at all times.

Why is it that we feel so unable to just lean over, tap someone on the shoulder politely, and ask them, for the sake of Christ and his many disciples, to please shut up…this is not your home, and no matter how interesting and urgent your conversation may seem to you, it is but a growling monster to the rest of your fellow passengers?

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