Andreas Gursky, May Day V (2006)
The City

Urban Incivility

My friend Nikolas is a modern-day knight-errant of the city. His foes aren’t giants or dragons but boors and yokels, though I don’t think that battling the ill-mannered requires any less courage or wit. I’ve seen him on a subway escalator reminding people to stand on the right, I’ve sat next to him at the cinema when he’ll turn around to hush a couple who’ve been blathering away during the film, and I’ve stood beside him as he tried to usher people to move further into the bus and away from the exits.

The buses are a particularly illustrative stage on which the tragedy of the commons is daily enacted in Athens. Regardless of whether the passengers are getting off at the next stop or ten stops later, they all seem to huddle around the exits, like marines in the hull of an amphibious assault vehicle, ready to storm out once the hatch opens. Although everyone would be more comfortable if the passengers dispersed a bit and moved further into the bus, no one makes the move. I’ve always wondered if people were actually afraid that they’d miss their stop if they weren’t six inches away from the door. In any event it’s a n odd merging of two ordinarily mutually exclusive ways of handling exit requests: everybody wants to be first-out, not only those who were first in (FIFO) but also those who were last in (LIFO) and everyone in between. A queue becomes a stack.

Naturally all this bunching up around the doors makes it even harder and takes longer for people to get off the bus because as you’ve already surmised, no one who’s scrunched up at the exits will step off the bus to let others out. And then there are the people waiting at the bus stop who’ll try to get onto the bus before those inside get out.

Yesterday at his house over a brunch of the most satiny scrambled eggs I’ve ever eaten Nikolas explained his theory about Athenian bad manners. He said that Greece never had the opportunity to develop a culture of urban civility. The sudden influx in the 50s and 60s of more than a million Greek farmers into the cities of Greece but above all Athens transformed the cities themselves but also their new inhabitants.  In 1960 more than half of the inhabitants of the greater Athens metropolitan area were post-war migrants, none of whom had had much if any experience of living in an urban environment far from the watchful eyes of neighbors and extended family. There were suddenly liberated, Nikolas said, from the social constraints of village life. The city had no eyes. It was blind to their existence and their actions. Or if it did see it did not remember what it saw.

The village, on the other hand, was full of eyes and memory: your courtyard or garden fronted a street along which people who knew you passed daily and who were quick to comment on how you kept your house and lived your life.  This of course meant that there was no clear demarcation between public and private space. In the city public space began at the door to your flat and intersected wholly with the common good.  The village looked inwards towards the space that its inhabitants shared with one another: the square, the kafeneion, the church courtyard and the paths and alleyways that tied the village together.  Post-war Athens looked outward from the balconies of faceless apartment buildings that were built by the thousands in the 60s and 70s and saw no common space.

All of which goes a way in explaining the contrast visitors to Greece sometimes note between the immaculate cobblestoned streets and freshly whitewashed houses of an Aegean island village and the astonishingly dirty and heavily littered streets of (some areas of) the capital.

But is it just the eyes that keep us civil? I told Nikolas he seemed to saying we’re all waiting for the opportunity to become pigs. He said, yes, in a way we are, and pointed to the example of German or British tourists who come to Greece and shout in public, shove their way through line (such lines as they are in Greece), get drunk and puke on the streets and generally engage in behavior they wouldn’t even consider doing in their home country. I didn’t say that I’d seen my share of puking on the streets of Berlin but I did say that it can’t just be the fear of punishment or retaliation that keeps people civil. For villagers—and the same probably goes for our own circle of acquaintances and colleagues—there’s a benefit to the individual in being civil. Strong social networks help us cope with the demands and upsets of daily life, and you can’t build a network of caring friends and thoughtful neighbors if you’re not nice.

However, in a city of strangers that are likely to remain strangers, in a city without eyes and memory, there’s no immediate individual benefit to being civil. Being civil is something we do for others or at least in recognition that our own comfort should not come at the expense of another’s well-being. Admittedly, there is a long-term incentive to being civil to strangers: a community of civil citizens is a less stressful, more pleasant environment in which to live. It makes for a place where you can get on and off a bus much faster or sit on a park bench alone with your thoughts, or more seriously, a place where you can ride a bike on a city street without risking your life. But this cause-and-effect relationship is not immediately apparent. Civility is something that needs to be learned as a child and not calculated in a cost-benefit analysis.

André Comte-Sponville begins his wonderful Small Treatise on the Great Virtues with the quality of politeness before moving onto the meatier virtues of courage, justice, generosity, tolerance, and love. But when he argues that civility is the origin of all virtues, he means simply that it comes first. As children we learn “to behave” long before we are able to morally act but it is precisely this “pretense or semblance of virtue”, Comte-Sponville says, that enables us, as we gradually acquire the faculty of moral judgment, to become virtuous. “Morality,” he writes, “is first artifice, then artifact”. He is careful not to overplay the significance of politeness later on in adult life, and I would grant him that civility in and of itself is almost meaningless (witness the well-mannered scoundrel), That said, I think he fails to recognize the important role it has in facilitating interactions among strangers in an anonymous city. Maybe because he lives in Paris.

The women and men who charge into the bus and anchor themselves at the door, or the man who’ll carry his old computer to the dumpster instead of recycling it, or the housewife who’ll throw out the garbage in a paper recycling station because it’s a block closer than the regular dumpster are not mean people or even especially ill-mannered. Within their social network they may very well be loving parents and siblings, loyal friends, generous hosts and considerate (next-door) neighbors.

But beyond that familiar circle things can be very different: what Nikolas and I were experiencing was (the admittedly sporadic examples) of the unintentional rudeness of a third-generation of city dwellers who hadn’t grown up within a family environment that teaches children the values of urban civility.  INcidentally, his point about the absence of a strong urban middle class in the development of modern Greece has been made by other Greek thinkers, notably by Nikos Dimou in his book, The Unhappiness of Being Greek.

I asked Nikolas why he even bothers. He told me it was partly to vent his anger but also and more importantly to make a difference. Saying nothing would condone the act of rudeness, he said. And there’s always a possibility, he added, however slim, that the uncivil person may later reconsider his behavior. I was reminded of something P.M. Forni had once said in an interview when asked why we should go out on a limb to confront a person about his rudeness: “We teach others how to treat us by how much we are willing to endure from them”

Nikolas would argue that public behavior can change, and he could point for example to the Athens metro. It’s still spotlessly clean after a decade of operations, and that’s not only due to the vigilance of a sizable crew of janitors. Athenians behave differently in the shining granite- and stainless-steel stations; they respect the space and don’t throw litter on the floor. And they never smoke in the station.

Some would see in this comportment the justification for rudeness elsewhere: the only reason people have no regard for the common good in public space in Athens is that the space—in contrast to that of the metro—is indeed hostile, neglected by the state, uncared for by the very attendants supposedly paid to look after its upkeep. Give citizens a space–or indeed a service or education or taxation system–worthy of their appreciation and they’ll reciprocate with consideration. (Others of a more cynical bent say that the space is so imposing in scale and Teutonic order that people are too intimidated to do otherwise). When the subway first opened, people would step on to the escalator and stand wherever there was an opening, left or right. Although the metro had a recording of proper escalator behavior, it played it only very rarely, and it was only the repeated efforts of Nikolas and his brethren knights who would chant whenever they ascended an elevator, “we stand on the right and pass on the left” that surprisingly now most people stand on the right.

People still do rush the doors, though.


Image: Andreas Gursky, May Day V (2006)

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