Monday, August 24, 2009

Respecting the rights of others

To live amongst other people and maintain order there generally needs to be some limits on personal liberty. I think that most of us would agree with the notion that everyone cannot do absolutely anything they please at any moment. One famous limit on speech is the oft-quoted concept that "you cannot yell 'fire' in a crowded theater."

I was in a fairly crowded theater yesterday to see a movie. I walked in a few minutes before the film started and, with the center rows pretty full, I took the first seat on a middle row in a side section. As the previews were running, three young guys -- frat-boy types -- squeezed by me to take the open seats to my left. They munched loudly on popcorn at the start of the movie, but they weren't intentionally trying to create noise and they do have a right to eat popcorn -- whether the theater is crowded or not.

What they did do that was infuriating was fiddle with their cell phones throughout the entire film. Texting, checking for messages, checking the time and, at one point, the guy next to me took a phone call during the film. The same guy dropped his phone toward the end of the movie and fished around on the floor for five minutes. These were guys in their 20s acting like teenage girls.

Even without the movement and talking, the blue light of cell phones is pretty damn annoying in a theater. It is distracting to the eye. I turned to give a dirty look every time I saw the glow, but in the darkness of a cinema I doubt the trio noticed. Even if they did, however, is it likely that they cared? The signs in the lobby of the Somerville Theater clearly specify that cell phone use -- even just texting -- is grounds for ejection, but no one was walking around checking, and I wouldn't expect them to be. If I went out to inform the staff, they would have probably come in to warn the guys, but then I'd have to sit somewhere else because they'd be angry. If I said something to them they would have scoffed at me.

I've had a similar experience here on Bennington Street. A number of times this summer, at various hours of the night, a vehicle will pull up to a house almost directly across from mine and the driver will beep the horn. This has happened as late as 3 a.m., and I've noticed it a half-dozen or so times. (It may have happened many times before, say, 10 p.m., but I wouldn't have taken much notice because I am not some cranky person who wants to stifle the lives of others. I have only taken notice when the incident occurs at an unreasonable time.)

The horn blasts aren't even tepid toots. There's usually more than one long blast. It is unfathomable that this individual thinks that he or she has the right to disturb, even wake up, the roughly 200 or 300 people that are within earshot because whoever is supposed to be picked up not outside or because the driver is too lazy to get out of the vehicle and ring the doorbell. I've been close to going out there a couple times, but I'm not looking for a late-night confrontation with a stranger. (It is always the same house. I have the address, and I am taking note of who comes out and of the vehicles.)

What's the problem here? Why don't the theater guys or the drivers have some respect for the people around them? There is a temptation when things like this happen to believe that our society, or civilization in general, is going downhill -- the "hell in a handbasket" argument. I am leery of jumping on that as a first option (though in the end in may be true). A thousand years ago the Vikings (and other marauding invaders) weren't very civil; less than 200 years ago one race was still enslaving another in a "free" society; 60 years ago most Americans agreed with interning the Japanese in wartime; in places all over the world ethnic and religious differences lead to horrific bloodletting -- today as in every previous society.

These are big, violent examples, I know, but maybe in general things aren't getting worse, but in the overall scheme of the modern Western world, things are actually getting better -- which makes even small transgressions appear more noticeable. Maybe that's it. I'm not sure. All I can do is try my best to be as civil to those around me as possible and hope that everyone else thinks in the same terms.

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