Tuesday, 03 January 2012

The problem of civility: a parking vignette I thought I was lucky to grab a parking slot on the edge of a row, with a yellow crossed box marked on the passenger side. This kind of thing matters if you’re moving from place to place with a growing bairn who is hard to manoeuvre into his seat at the best of times. I got back to the car to find a large van snuggled up alongside, leaving me enough room to get the door open about one and a half feet. Aware of the potential havoc to my back I cautiously got the bairn strapped in and closed the door. I then heard the van driver approaching to say ‘You alright there mate?’ I grumphed audibly. ‘Where do you want me to park?’ he says, ‘on the roof?’ Er, well how about legally? ‘Oh what you gonna do?’ says he, ‘call the police?’ Which epitomises the problem of respect and civility in public spaces. It’s impossible for any system of government to oversee all potential disputes, so our society depends on most of us taking other people into consideration in the first instance (citizenship), before questions of legality come into play. Some people seem to see inconsiderate acts first and foremost as either legal, or illegal-but-can-be-got-away-with. One of the popular questions of our time is whether the proportion of the population in the latter category is increasing. I’m more than ever persuaded that this perception is related to the amount of time we spend cocconed in our cars, a peering position which subtly alters the relationship to the Other. And if it is increasing, I think the next question to ask is: where’s the tipping point?
Neighbourliness and the natural disaster effect Here’s an article by Queensland sociologist Lynda Cheshire, reflecting on the contrast between neighbourly behaviour during the floods in that state last year, and a reported ‘rise in neighbourly tensions’ that apparently characterises contemporary Australian life. Why are neighbours still there when needed, she asks, 'even if their noise, smells and habits are cause for complaint the rest of the time?' Cheshire notes that the contrast might partly be explained by an increased ability to avoid confrontation by referring difficulties to official intermediaries (like this example I blogged not long ago) and points out that this is ‘a costly habit’: ‘There is a possibility that the wave of goodwill exhibited during the floods will minimise neighbourly conflicts, or at least reduce registered complaints. But it may also create new sets of expectations about neighbours and new forms of conflict if these normative codes are breached.’ I’m reminded that some months ago I wrote about the way supportive neighbourly responses in time of large-scale disasters throw up somewhat nostalgic reflections about how our societies have 'lost' the values that are warmly evidenced in time of adversity. Cheshire’s article does not come into that category, although she does appear at least in this case to reproduce uncritically the received narrative of decline. I'd like to know more about whether neighbourliness in Australia really has declined and in what ways, and how that compares with the UK where similar claims are so often made.

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