Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Learning to act right (9)…. Learning reciprocity

Learning to act right (9)…. Learning reciprocity
Torrey Orton,
Barcelona, Spain
June 9, 2010

"En cas d'affluence, ne pas utiliser les strapontins"
Paris Metro 270510

On our first and only day in Paris I noticed a little sign (above) to the left of a Metro car door. One word reached out - "affluence" - touching my mangledmeanings warning system. So I read the whole sign again. While I knew I was in the presence of an example of what linguists call 'false friends', the overlap with our popular social disease affluenza was an irresistible attraction. However, in the Paris Metro an affluence is an excess of a different kind; one to be avoided by travelling out of rush hour. The little sign commands us not to sit on the springloaded, flapdown seats at the car door when there's a crowd on board. Something similar can be found in our own Melbourne Metro trains which also suffer affluences in the French sense, perhaps with less grace.

One might have thought the command unnecessary, that anyone would know not to sit down when their seating would block the ingress/egress of others - in a word, not to be civically inconsiderate. But like the French (the same sign is in the Metro of Toulouse, so I'll guess it's napoleonically everywhere in France), we have seriously increasing shortages of public consideration, especially where one would have thought that the right action was obvious!!

I expect soon there'll be signage on the outside of our Metro train or Yarra Tram doors saying 'make way for exiting passengers, you dopes' in recognition of the increasing practice of standing in front of the doors at rush hours. I have sworn lightly but audibly at some malefactors of consideration at Flinders Station tram stop. This malefaction seems to be a gender, age and ethnicity free affliction. Little old ladies of various origins look a little put out by a large old guy of my dimensions staring them down from the tram front doorway, especially the older grey ones which only admit one person in or out at a time.

The 'one'Ah, the ubiquitous 'one' of a notionally shared code of practice. Public life is where we learn and reinforce these codes. Some are found all around the world wherever modernity's opportunities (immediate need fulfilments across the whole range of the imaginable) impose their own constraints like traffic rules, queuing for service, and so on. Where they are well established, they are understood as right actions which everyday public life depend on. In Hong Kong the code of ingress/egress is marked in fat white lines on the train platforms to remind the selfish of a virtue which deserves the reinforcement of regulation.

We experience the codes as politeness, consideration … in fact, as personal respect. Their decline in Oz (partially out of immigrant ignorance of local habits or importing habits from other less polite cultures) of simple acknowledgments like the finger wave of thanks for letting another pass on a closefitting road is felt by some of us as the creeping edge of indifference or worse, aggression. I was pleased to find its equivalent is as alive in southern France today, as is its other face – the pass-on-any-corner culture of southern European (France, Italy Spain) driving.

We had a nearly terminally shocking encounter with that other face on leaving Cauterets down its 15 ks of winding, switchback, two lane road with 100-200 meter drops off one side. A turbo powered Mini, or French similar, popped out from a blind corner in our side of the road at 70-80 kph (we were under the limit at 70 kph) and a closely fitted line of four cars and truck he was trying to pass hedged him into our lane. That I'm writing now tells the outcome, but our driver lost a couple of lives in avoiding a multicar mush. Where does that madness, also an accepted code I've encountered in Italy and Spain, come from in a national transport culture with well regulated freeway driving which keeps slower vehicles consistently in the outside lane, and blocking the passing lane is an acknowledged sin recompensed by self-deprecating waves from those needing absolution?

Conflicting right actionsSomewhere in such contradictions lurks the changing dynamics of particular right actions at any time in history. Conflicting codes kept in mind without internal conflict it seems. The above examples are extended by the often impenetrable practice of give way to the right which make places like Place de L' Etoile and its many siblings in Paris actually work to move things. That code is a different solution to the power politics of human movement. People on escalators and streets walk to the right, too.

Reciprocity is a core value expressing the shared nature and mutuality of human (and other organisms!) being. Our everyday possibility depends on it, despite the common disregard by the simple-minded individualists of their various hues. How we learn reciprocity is a major challenge for our value-distorted times. Reciprocity does not equal mutuality, though they stand on empathy expressed partly and occasionally in compassion, underpinned by neuronal competence for recognising the thinking/feeling others. The oft cited downturn in close friendships between adults in the Anglo world in last 10 (?) years suggests an objective the decline in substantive mutuality and reciprocity.

So, as I wondered months ago, what are the young learning about relationships, both near and distant, and the ethics which sustains them??? Can it be the world of intergenerational fantasy promoted by Maurice Levy, chairman and CEO of Publicis Group in an article published jointly in Le Monde and the International Herald Tribune on May 28, 2010? He claims of his grandchildren "This new generation, activist and more inherently collective, is now taking the place of the post-Boomers, whose individualism and materialism may perhaps have contributed to the excesses for which we are now paying." I remember belonging to something like that 45 years ago, which shifted some social sentiments, but otherwise populated the Boomer world without a slip in the normal drive train. Levy's encomia for the young sound like those of my youth and with largely the same economic and social naiveté.

Does it matter?But anyway, does it matter? Is there any reason to believe that traditional virtues and structures must be maintained? Can people live in an untrusting world? Yes, of course, because the Germans, Russians, Chinese and hosts of others in hosts of places have done so, and do do so, now and they continue to be human, just less comfortably so. Our behavioural economists will tell us that the quality of life is partly (?) a matter of perception affected by personal expectations, so living in an Indian village or Caucasus city may have higher perceived well-being than your average denizen of supposedly advanced cultures, especially the Anglo ones….or so I read repeatedly.. and that's the latest research!!.

Most recently, yesterday, I read someone else wondering about the validity of various current social critiques because they are so often thoroughly ahistorical and so interpret the present as if there had never been a past with similar dynamics. He was introducing The Shallows (2010) by Nicholas Carr. Maybe the important learning of ethical basics continues persistently in the colourless undercurrents of living, driven by hard-wired needs for fairness, respect, etc.? And driven by ethical obsessives like myself who think the world is going to the proverbial in a handbag and so must thrash around about it, thereby keeping such matters in the public view a bit. This makes them available as materials for discussion later. After all, why did Plato write or Aquinas, or Confucius ... not for the past. Along the way a few perspectives on matters of what's right action and acting right provide us
not merely with an aesthetic diversion in the ethical spheres but difference with which to refine currently preferred decision equations.

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