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Patient and inconsiderate

The cliche about New Yorkers is that they are rude and impatient. Some mistakenly believe that impatience is in fact a form of rudeness rather than an efficient system of communication among strangers pursuing a vast array of ends in a congested, shared space. Of course, I'm biased, but it seems most New Yorkers -- the ones working, the ones with places to be and things to do -- are generally aware of the people around them and together they all make a collective effort to keep things moving. Sometimes the awareness takes the form of attempts to outmaneuver one another, and efficiency in public space is achieved via the invisible hand of unrepentant individual selfishness and putting oneself ahead of those who aren't paying as much attention to their surroundings. At the risk of venturing a Ayn Randian species of counterintuitive thinking (selfishness isn't just not wrong, it's the only virtue!), I want to suggest that aggressive behavior in public (what is dubbed rational behavior in market contexts) creates a grid of expectations that allows everyone to pass through public space more purposefully.

On the road, this principle is illustrated when there are lane closures -- New York drivers tend not to respect any notion of civilized queueing, preferring instead a mad free-for-all of people cutting off other people. This seems theoretically "unfair" but it tends to keep traffic as a whole moving faster. (This is why in more quaint places in America, drivers are encouraged not to form one lane too early, expanding the areas affected by congestion.) True, too much lane changing in open road situations ultimately affects all riders negatively, contributing to volume-related slowdowns, but complacency and an abstract concern for respecting the rules of politeness only expedites road rage.

But the question of how aggressive one should be in trying to get where one is going is more pressing for New York pedestrians. The more aggressive one is in walking the streets, generally the more aware one becomes of the environment: if you are going to stand halfway in the street waiting to cross an intersection, you need to know what's coming. If you are going to jaywalk, you need to make sure you can get away with it -- as Dylan's dictum goes, "To live outside the law you must be honest." The troublemakers on New York streets are not the hyperaggressive racewalkers and Knievelesque bike messengers (whose moves are always predicable based on the presumption of their heedless selfishness and can thus be countered) but tentative tourists, who are apt to make unpredictable moves in full obliviousness of those around them. They likely feel this is their right as tourists, as flight from responsibility to others is probably considered part of their vacation in general. But maybe as a culture we should stop creating the mistaken illusion that it is possible to take a vacation from responsibility to others, that this could be bought and sold as an experiential good.

Kottke.org linked to this complaint about tourists who persist in being unaware of their surroundings. The author, Brooks of Sheffield, laments the "death of peripheral vision" and offers this interpretation of the essence of civic duty:

I was brought up to be constantly aware of others around me, to keep a sharp eye out to see if I was blocking someone's way, holding someone up. For the simplest way a civilized human being can show their respect for a fellow person is to register and acknowledge their presence, and recognize they have as much right to the surrounding air and ground as you do.
In New York, it's impossible to stay out of people's way entirely; but the edge of intrusions into personal space are made much more tolerable and forgivable when it is made clear they they are either undertaken reluctantly or with the intent to move things in general along -- when you know that its nothing personal and it was the result of calculation. What is intolerable is the species of selfishness that masquerades as mellowness and has no specific intent behind it and winds up communicating that the blissfully unaware person considers you so insignificant that they won't even deign to recognize your existence enough to be rude to you on purpose. Instead of being situational rudeness (that which is practiced by most New Yorkers), tourists practice a categorical rudeness, a self-satisfied indifference they have toward everyone else, who, as Brooks puts it, become "merely extras in the home movie starring themselves." And it seems to violate the categorical imperative, which is at the crux of the exchange below, from the comments on Brooks' post.

Laura Moncur said...

Sorry, but it's not my job to accomodate you. I watch out for other people, but that is strictly for my benefit, not yours. Assuming that the world should get out of your way isn't the answer.

Plus, those tourists bring a lot of money to your town. Be a little more respectful of them.

4/09/2007 10:02 AM

Brooks of Sheffield said...

Actually, Laura, it is your job to accomodate other people. It's everybody's job. That's part of what being a human being means. Civilization is nothing more than a thousand daily, silently-agreed-upon accomodations toward your fellow beings. And has it occurred to you that your attitude of looking out for other people only when it benefits you only works if there are other people in the world willing to look out for not just themselves, but others—like you.

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