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EYE ON THE PIE: The danger of overrating civility

April 28, 2008

Here I am standing in line at the grocery store. The sign above the cashier says, "Twelve items or less." The woman in front of me has a basket with at least 20 items. Should I ask her if she can count?

I am on foot waiting for the traffic light to turn green. There are other pedestrians also waiting. Should I step off the curb and cross the street if there are no cars coming?

A child is sticking his arm out the window of a moving car. Should I attempt to warn the driver of the danger to that child?

The music at the wedding is too loud. None of the guests can talk to each other without shouting. Should I complain to the bandleader or just let it go, assuming it's not my place to interfere?

Parts of the restaurant meal placed in front of me are cold, apparently heated unevenly in the microwave. Eat what's there or speak out?

The examples are endless. I am delighted every time a reader of this column complains about my views. People who speak up are doing me a service: They are helping me to see other aspects of important issues.

Sadly, however, it is the practice in American society to avoid any form of confrontation. Perhaps we are afraid the other person will pull a gun or a tire iron. But I suspect we are victims of our parental training; we are told from an early age not to stick our noses "where they do not belong. Stay out of other people's business; mind your own knitting."

What is the result of this "polite" behavior? We give silent sanction to inappropriate behavior. We perpetuate disrespect for the law. We encourage antisocial attitudes. We are poor role models for others. We undermine the foundations of civilization.

"Preposterous," you say. "Making something out of nothing. Setting folks against one another. Establishing the basis for social calcification. Opening the way for dictatorial rule."

Not as I see it. To me, letting that woman with 20 items go unchallenged says to her and everyone else in line that rules are just suggestions. Soon, stop signs on the streets are just suggestions. Then, red lights become something to burst through because we have no regard for the rights or interests of others.

If the rule is wrong, if the regulations encourage inefficiency and the laws are unjust, they should be challenged as vigorously as transgressions against them. Courtesy is misplaced when the preferences of one person are allowed to override the interests of others.

Let me give you a different example. You and I are inside an elevator. The doors are about to close. Someone on the outside is running toward us shouting, "Hold the car!" What do you do?

I shut the door or at least make no attempt to keep it open. If I let the desire of the person running for the elevator rule, I am assuming the value of that person's time is worth more than yours and mine combined. Should I respect the interest of that other person more than I respect you and me?

Society is built on respect for others. Most of our customs, rules, and laws are designed for efficiency and/or justice. To encourage disrespect for those social guidelines, however seemingly trivial the example, is to undermine our prosperity and safety.



Marcus taught economics for more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU's Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at mmarcus@ibj.com.
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