Sunday, June 03, 2007

I try to discover, a little something to make me sweeter

I hope that isn't Dry Clean OnlyTo me, politeness is a very simple concept; do as you would be done to. I must say that in my sheltered existence, I find that most people I ever have to deal with are pleasant and polite. The prejudice I experience as a disabled person often manifest itself as rudeness, but I don't think a knowledge of manners is really the issue there. And indeed, the other main categories of rude people I have ever come across are:
  1. People who can be forgiven for occupying an entirely different culture, where it is unacceptable to make eye-contact or conversation with strangers. There does seem to be such a culture in some big cities, even if, thankfully, some residents seem magically immune to it.
  2. People who can be forgiven for being plain grumpy, as I assume they are perfectly civil the rest of the time and are just having a really bad day when our paths happened to cross.
  3. People who I assume to have some sort of hidden impairment which means that I have inadvertantly frightened and confused them. I genuinely believe that of the few incidents where people have been overtly, aggressively rude to me.
However, there was one thing that used to frustrate me on a regular basis. I would always navigate the doctor's surgery in Whitby on foot, but I would sit near to the door so I had the shortest distance between waiting room and doctor's room. This meant that it fell upon me to get up and open the doors for folks who looked like they were going to struggle with it. I wasn't always the closest, I just seemed to be the only one who noticed. And there's no way I could sit there and watch someone suffer helplessness, unnecessary pain and embarassment, when I was capable of helping, even though it caused me significant discomfort to do so. Do as you would be done to.

They were double doors though and opening one didn't leave enough room for someone with a stick, let alone two sticks, crutches or a wheelchair to get through. My usual method was to prop one door back with my arse and hold the other open with my fingertips, creating a human archway for the person to pass through. Most were petite elderly ladies who didn't come up to my chest (making them limbo might have defeated the object). However, really it needed two people to open the doors; this would have been obvious to anyone who looked at what I was doing.

It was a mystery why nobody came and helped. I wondered whether it looked like we were managing fine, or whether people were afraid to, I don't know, patronise either of us with their assistance. I even used to try to make eye-contact with the nun (there was always a nun in our doctor's waiting room; a different one each time, but there was always a nun). Almost everyone who travelled under my arch thanked me, of course - except for the more mobile people who would take advantage of the doors being propped open and clamber through without a word or even a look, presumably imagining I was some sort of paid doorstop (now there's a career I might usually fulfil...).

Impoliteness is very noticeable when it causes you inconvenience and even more noticeable when it causes you pain. But everyone has got such bugbears. Everyone has and everyone probably always did.

Anyway, as part of some ongoing Bread and Circuses initiative, the government's "respect tsar" Louise Casey has complained that Britain is not polite enough. I should explain to those outside the UK, that the "respect tsar" is the head of the Anti-Social Behaviour Unit. Anti-Social Behaviour is behaviour which is unpleasant, but can't be defined as a crime. I'm not sure how unpleasant you have to be to invite the attention of the Unit, and in fact because we're not dealing with actual crime, unacceptable degrees of unpleasantness have not been clearly outlined in law. This has become a disability issue because a number of children and young adults on the autistic spectrum have received punishment and restrictions for unconventional social behaviour. But that's for another day.

Casey's remarks are extraordinarily meaningless. Made, I guess, because it is a popular opinion; that other people aren't polite. Ever met anyone who thought that, in general, other people were generally more polite than they are? Ever met anyone without some anecdote of about shocking rudeness? It's also fairly common, even for people my age, to imagine there was a halcyon time in the past where everyone's manners were impeccable. That Mr Hitler may have been a cad, but he always asked nicely before invading someone's country.

And yet, as a politician, what on Earth can any "respect tsar" do about these things? Can public policy make people polite to one another - short of providing a tax break for a doffed cap and fine people who forget to say Thank You?

However, Casey does touch on something which might be useful to understand if we want to make the world a more polite place. After all, she's not simply having a go at the lot of us, the entire British people - that would be rude. Instead, she points fingers. She blames single-parent families and a decline in church-going and neighbourliness. And soap opera, naturally.

In doing so, I think she might have inadvertantly demonstrated why people aren't as always polite as we would like them to be - perhaps even, not as polite as they used to be . Because we are set against one another. Because we are told, by our politicians, to blame other people and groups for the faults of a society that we are all equal shareholders in. A theory backed up rather nicely by the subsequent Have Your Say discussion; (the most recommended comment citing my old friend, political correctness).

Why should you give your seat to that pregnant woman on the bus when she might be an unmarried mother who watches soap opera and doesn't go to church? Clearly, neither she nor her spawn would give her seat up for you, so sod her. And why help a younger woman and an older, less mobile woman in their struggle to get her safely through an awkward set of doors? As a rabid feminist, the young woman would probably kick you in the shins for trying to help (even if such a violent movement would surely displace her balance and cause her to collapse on top of the old lady). So sod her too. Sod 'em all. The sods!

Do as you would be done by becomes do as you would expect to be done by given an entirely pessimistic view of your fellow man.

Applying pessimism to social strategies is always a Big Mistake. However disheartening it can be when attempts to be nice to other people provoke inexplicably negative responses, negative behaviour guarantees a negative response. There are circumstances where it is only sensible to apply caution, of course, but at the point that you are approaching all strangers, in all circumstances with an equal degree of trepidation, something has gone seriously wrong.

But that's exactly what such rhetoric does, even if it is made in the name of improving levels of respect in our society. It says "The people around you are rubbish - we will protect you from the people around you."

I wonder; since we have a "respect tsar", do you think I could be a "respect Bolshevik"?


Mary said...

If we all accepted that people are basically nice, Ms Casey would be out of a job. If she doesn't come out with stupid comments like this once in a while, someone might spot her on the accounts sheet and say "what does this woman actually do?..."

OK, that's harsh, but as someone raised in a single-parent non-churchgoing family I feel rather riled.

Trouble is that we do seem a bit more inclined to focus on the nastiness we encounter. If someone is mugged in the street, they'll probably start talking about what's happened to society, it's not safe to walk down the street any more, these ruffians think they can get away with anything... and not focus on the fact that for that *one* mugger, there were two people who tried to run after the mugger but couldn't catch up, three passers-by who stopped and asked if the victim was okay, one of whom who offered their mobile phone to call the police, and another who ushered the victim into a nearby shop and chivvied the staff into letting them have a sit-down and a drink. Not to mention the police officers, victim support scheme people and so on.

Maddy said...

My atheist husband adopted 'Mrs.Do as you would be done by' to great effect, for which I admire him greatly.
If you couple 'Mrs. Do' with 'what goes around comes around' the net effect is peace of mine.
Best wishes

Sharon McDaid said...

In the health centre I used to go to, they installed automatic doors. But they still had 2 steps to get to the door. The automatic doors were a pain to me with my ultra-active child, who kept running up to them and making them open. And the steps were a nightmare to the many, many people with limited mobility.

I don't think I'll read the 'Have your Say' link, it'll just wind me up!

sjt said...

This is a really good post - you should be a columnist

Funky Mango said...

The other week, I was sitting in a hospital waiting room, in my power wheelchair. I seemed to be the only person to notice that someone was trying to get through the non-automatic double doors, pushing a manual chair, so I puttered over there in my chair and held one door open for her while she held the other open with one hand and pushed the chair through with the other.

Now clearly me being in a chair doesn't exempt me from good manners, and I'm not expecting any sort of medal for helping out. But why was it that out of probably about 40 people in that waiting room, I was apparently the only person to notice that someone was needing some help? Maybe the rest were just pretending not to have...