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The Death of Common Courtesy?


Florida has suffered a recent spat of senseless violence in the form of high-profile shootings that have led to renewed calls to repeal our controversial Stand Your Ground laws. While I fully support such a repeal, I’d like to take a look at the bigger picture and ask why we seem to have become a society whose new social norms almost seem to guarantee the escalation of any confrontation.

This month, a man who shot and killed a 17-year old in an argument over loud music was convicted of “attempted murder” (the murder charge resulted in a hung jury). In January, a 43-year old father was shot in a movie theater near Tampa, during an argument over texting. The shooter, a retired 71-year old police captain, currently faces second-degree murder charges.

First, I want to make it perfectly clear that I am not in any way whatsoever blaming the victims or excusing the perpetrators for these vile and heinous acts. There is no level of rudeness, inconsideration or disrespect that should lead to someone being shot. To respond to any sort of perfectly avoidable confrontation (which both of these seemed to clearly be) with lethal force is nothing short of inhumane, and by that I mean nothing less than a betrayal of our very humanity.

That being said, just because one side of a lethal confrontation so profoundly outweighs the other, doesn’t mean we should only examine that aspect. Indeed, if we genuinely hope to elevate the conversation to a point where we might contemplate solutions, it is required that both sides of the equation be considered.

How did we get to a point where such conflicts have become almost commonplace? I don’t think I’m alone in saying I feel as though society has changed profoundly in just the last two decades, in terms of the likelihood of such a confrontation originating, as well as the response being elevated to mortal conflict.

The rise in gun ownership (Florida surpassed the one-million concealed weapons milestone in 2013) is only part of the problem and laws that seem to embolden those who carry them clearly would be another. But what about the seemingly increased frequency of the uncivil discourse that too often precedes tragedy?

Have we become so disconnected from each other that what once seemed a basic instinct – extending courtesy to fellow human beings – has become a rare response whenever we are wearing anything but our best skin? Have our increasingly virtual lives erased an innate instinct to be kind to one another, even if only because it tends to serve our own best interest in the long run?

Aren’t human beings, like other animals, hardwired to take the path of least resistance, the one that provides for the least likelihood of endangering our lives? If so, why do we seem to invite rather than discourage conflict with strangers more and more? Has the golden rule become an antiquated reminder of days gone by?

How is it that we have grown so entitled, that our every action seems too often to begin with the premise that we should be able to do whatever we please? Isn’t the social contract based on the idea that our own freedoms are only limited by their infringement on the freedoms and rights of others? But to expect what were once presumptive courtesies, routed in just that sort of philosophy, seems nothing short of naive, perhaps even dangerously so.

Should we expect people walking their dog not to leave a mess on their neighbor’s lawn? For that matter, should we expect that if their dog is barking loudly in the backyard at 6 a.m. its owner would immediately realize that such a disturbance might be an unfair encroachment on their neighbor’s right to a good night’s sleep? I would think so, but I have noticed increasingly that such expectations are not only unlikely to be met, but even viewed with contempt.

Should we be able to give a subtle beep at the red-light when a distracted driver has failed to notice that the signal has changed, in hope that we might alert them to look up from their cell phone screen and prevent a dozen cars from having to suffer through an additional signal cycle without getting a look (or worse) that would suggest you’ve just called them an offensive name and said rotten things about their mother? Again, it seems reasonable, if unlikely.

Should we be able to spend an increasingly hefty chunk of our disposable income going to the movies and not have inconsiderate moviegoers texting, talking on their cell phones, holding conversations at living room volumes? If not, should we expect that the once standard shushing of such behavior be seen as a kindly reminder that it may be spoiling the experience for many other people who also bought a ticket, rather than something akin to spitting in their popcorn?

Should we be able to go to the movies, an upscale restaurant or even a quiet coffee house for that matter and expect that if a parent has brought a small child to such a venue and said child has proven incapable of refraining from making what is surely intended to be a peaceful experience something quite different, that it would be the parent who immediately feels that they should bear such discomfit by excusing themselves, rather than waiting for the room to clear out around them? 10 years ago, I would have been shocked to see an infant filled baby carrier parked next to someone's theater seat during an evening movie, while today it's become nearly commonplace.

Is it no longer suitable to presume that there are some venues unsuited for a crying child (or barking dog for that matter) and that if other accommodations cannot be made (i.e. a babysitter) then it would be better advised to try a more conducive venue, even if it is not your first choice for meeting up with friends, family, etc.; that perhaps that is one of the many sacrifices demanded by parenthood, and not one that it is appropriate to foist upon others so that you might do as you please? Or have our otherwise dissatisfied lives left us so bent on looking out for number one, that we've adopted an I work hard, I bought my ticket, I can do as I please mentality.

I don’t know about you, but these are all things that I see as more and more frequent in occurrence, while they seem also increasingly less likely to be met with reasonable responses, should someone politely and almost apologetically point them out and ask the offender to instead abide by what was once very standard behavior in our society.

Again, none of these things should lead to even elevated voices let alone physical and heaven forbid, mortal confrontation. Nonetheless, removing all of the compounding factors on that side of the issue remains only half of the equation. Until we begin to take a serious look at the other side, I fear we are missing a component that has the potential to be far more menacing in the long run, as it may have even more to do with our mass exodus from what in even relatively-recent times were much more pleasant norms.

Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at dennis.maley@thebradentontimes.com. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.


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