Strolling through Central Park on one of those pristine spring days – sharp blue skies, riotous beds of tulips and a giggling, noshing tapestry of humanity spread out over the lawns and sun-warmed granite outcroppings – it’s hard for even the most curmudgeonly misanthrope not to feel that maybe the world doesn’t entirely suck.
But before we get into that, you have a couple of urgent questions. Why is the guy from Canada writing about New York, and will he ever ease up on the painfully over-written prose.
Well, doesn’t everything begin and end in New York. And yes, I will.
So, I’m walking through a moderately crowded Central Park recently, holding pace with the moseying herd of lunchtime strollers along the walkway, when I see up ahead a vision of a 50-something lumpy package of jaw-set agitation, fully kitted in a yellow-and-black spandex Italian cycling costume, weaving shakily between the walkers as he tries to pick up speed on a small downslope.
Did I mention that I was walking behind a gracefully flowing woman in resplendent caftan, who had the advantage of magnificent size.
Anyway, you can see what’s coming. The jangle of frantic cyclist on his impossible mission to get in a 40-mile ride in four-foot increments had to slow his progress and swing wide around Madame Kaftan. To her credit, she did break stride but when you are dealing with the limits of physics, well, there’s only so much you can do.
If that were it, I suppose most people in the immediate area would have thought momentarily: “Wow, that guy looks like a jaundiced sausage. What a jerk.” And we never would have given it another thought.
But, of course, it didn’t end there. As he rounded Madame Kaftan, he screwed up his face in rage and shouted: “Get your fat, f***ing ass out of the way!”
In hindsight, as is always the case, I thought of all manner of cutting repartee. “Hey! Have you looked in a mirror in the past year?” No, too bland. “Hey, Sausage Boy, why don’t you go back to the Stupid Store, where you were born?” Yes, that would have worked.
Mostly though – especially since he was a flabby little gnome – I wished I had stepped in front of his bicycle, grabbed the handlebars and asked him if my fat ass was also in his way and if he wanted to do something about it. Really, inciting a Canadian (OK, I’m also an American) to fisticuffs – even imaginary fisticuffs – says something about the impact of civility, or its absence, on the human psyche.
And that’s where our story flies an hour north to Toronto, to Canada – the land of civility. (Really. Our Constitution promises not “life liberty and the pursuit of happiness” or “Libertie, Egalitie, Fraternitie.” No, Canadians are promised “Peace, order and good government.”)
But increasingly that civility is under attack. I hear the statement, “God, I hate people,” so often now that I’m looking into the T-shirt rights and have purchased the domain name. I hear it from my teen-aged daughter and my 60-year-old neighbor. I hear it from almost every friend who sits nursing a pint and recounting the tribulations of his day; the exposure to unnecessary, unhelpful and usually wrongly placed rage over some perceived slight. Indeed, the emotional blowback from any perceived slight these days often seems wildly out of proportion to the offense. We go from zero to nuclear in the time it takes us to circumnavigate a grand lady.
Canada is a country founded on the principle of tolerance, and civility. The Centre for Canadian Studies at Mount Allison University has done a nice job defining what that means.
“Within a society, civility means the absence of physical violence in social relations, a well-developed general sense for fairness and tolerance, the protection of human rights.”
I would add to that “the absence of psychic violence.”
The Centre for Canadian Studies also makes the claim that . . .
“Canada is one of the very few countries attempting to develop a nation-wide political culture of civility, and it has been comparatively successful in pursuing this goal. This explains why Canada is traditionally rated as number one on the United Nations’ human development index. As a measure of how Canada’s reputation for civility is regarded in the world, it is worth noting that a Canadian, John Peters Humphrey, was selected by the U.N. to be the principal drafter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
Maybe yes, maybe no. We do still tend to apologize to Coke machines if we don’t have the right change. But now if you fumble with your change too long, delaying someone behind you from their syrupy treat for an extra 12-seconds, you also might get the “why-don’t-you-just-f***-off-and-die-hell-for-all-eternity” reaction.
Really, people? Is that the kind of poison you want to spew into the environment? Really?
The obvious solution for all of us is to pause a beat and consider what we want to put out there in the world. Always good advice from a communication consultant.
Finally, and as always on matters of great import, I turn to a comedian for guidance. The subversively brilliant Scottish-American Craig Ferguson explains how he adjusted his behavior after his first marriage failed.
“Before I say anything, I ask myself three questions. Does this need to be said? Does this need to be said by me? Does this need to be said by me now?”
Almost Canadian in its civility.
Postscript: This just in.It may be too early to mourn the death of civility, in Canada at least. Regis is coming to Prince Edward Island tape his show in July, doing his bit to teach the rest of the world what civil people look like.