For a certain demographic in the province where I live, Ontario, the term social contract has a most unpleasant connotation, based as it is upon political events in the early 1990’s. For my purposes in this piece, however, the reasons for that are not particularly relevant.
What is important is the need for a collective agreement among people in a society as to how we are going to live, which the maligned term might well describe. But because of its history, and in order to expand upon the theme, I am using a euphemism, collective courtesy, to discuss that agreement.
Whenever large numbers of people come together in a communal setting—whether village, town, or city—it quickly becomes necessary to establish and abide by certain rules of order. Many of these are codified under the law and enforced by the legal authorities.
The scofflaws among us—and the outlaws—must be held to account for their actions if the established social order is not to break down. It is a cornerstone of our society, dating back to the Magna Carta Libertatum in 1215, that no one is above the law.
Collective courtesy, however, is not a concept easily enforced by our legal watchdogs. Nor, in truth, should it have to be. Rather, it is a set of intrinsic behaviours on the part of all citizens—built-in, second-nature, automatic, good-hearted—designed to enhance the public good.
Examples of such behaviours abound: returning a friendly greeting; standing to shake someone’s hand; helping to pick up something another person has dropped; holding open a door for another to pass; saying please and thank-you; turning off cellphones in public assemblies; praising publicly, criticizing privately.
For some time, I’ve been conducting a scientific survey of the prevalence of collective courtesy in my daily life. [Ed. note: not a scientific survey, more like an anecdotal scrutiny—but revealing]. The results are convincing me that, at least on a micro-scale, the occurrence of socially-helpful behaviours is diminishing.
Perhaps there are reasons for this. Sigmund Freud believed it is impossible to overlook the extent to which civilization is built upon a renunciation of instinct. And in large communal settings there is ever a friction between the social niceties and our more basic instincts. In times of stress and turmoil, we tend to revert to the latter, and I fear the former may be losing out to it.
One of my primary observation areas is the behaviour of other drivers. A few years ago, while driving in South Africa—where drivers on two-lane highways are expected to pull over on the paved shoulder to allow faster vehicles to pass—I noticed that almost all drivers do so. Not only that, the other drivers, once they have safely passed, invariably flash their lights in thanks.
Here, on the other hand, I have detected very little of this sort of adherence to collective courtesy on the highway. I habitually leave more than a car-length between me and the car ahead of me, and when other vehicles attempt to merge from an on-ramp, I slow enough to widen the gap. And then I take note of whether I get a friendly wave from the drivers. It hardly ever happens. The imprecations I toss in their direction would not be suitable if my grandchildren were in the car, but they make me feel better.
By the same token, when it is I who is attempting to merge, I am constantly amazed by the number of drivers who speed up to narrow the gap I might well have been able to use, thus requiring me to slow precipitously and hope the next driver will be more understanding. The imprecations I toss in their direction would not be…..well, you know.
Another area of observation is line-ups, whether at the bank, the fast-food joint, the boarding gate, the box office—and especially, the supermarket. I have long been bothered by people who attempt to butt into line, sometimes while feigning ignorance (Oh, is there a line? I’m sorry, I didn’t notice. But hey, now that I’m here…). Such people, I believe, should be told in no uncertain terms to back away. They do not have a sacrosanct set of rules for themselves alone, though many seem to feel they do.
Self-entitlement is a bane on us all.
But where is the harm, I wonder, in allowing someone to go ahead in line when it makes eminent sense? If you have six items at the checkout desk, for example, and are standing behind me with my forty-six items, would it really alter the course of my life if I permitted you to go first?
Or if you have a hungry, fussy toddler flailing about in your shopping cart? Or if your aged spouse is obviously fighting fatigue, leaning heavily against the counter? Or if you have a taxi waiting, meter already running?
If my connecting flight is leaving an hour earlier than yours, will it really inconvenience you so badly to allow me through passport control ahead of you? Do you not see the panicky look in my pleading eyes?
Not to present myself as some sort of latter-day saint, but I have done these things on various occasions. And most of those who benefited (but not all) have thanked me.
Such collective courtesy is a strong glue, and vital to holding our society together. It runs counter to the concept of zero-sum, where every action and reaction must net out to zero—for me to win, you must lose; and vice-versa.
The selfish among us appear to have no understanding of another important concept, pay-it-forward, which holds that an act of kindness is its own reward, and may prompt the recipient to do the same for someone else—a potential win/win/win.
Rudyard Kipling, in The Jungle Book, wrote one of my favourite captures of this concept—the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack. It is we, individually, who build a strong society, and it is that same strong society that we depend upon in times of peril.
When we help each other, we all win—the very best kind of social contract.
So why are the results of my scientific survey (sorry, anecdotal scrutiny) so depressing?