THE COLUMN

Issue No. 63/April 20, 1996


CIVILITY

IVAN HOFFMAN

The Los Angeles of the 1950's floated on the calm waters of civility. When I came out each summer to visit my father, the gentleness of this city stood in contrast to the rudeness that was New York, even in those days. There were no high rise buildings in Los Angeles for much of that decade. The air was nearly smog free and smelled sweet. There were actually orange trees on streets bearing that name. And drivers stopped when pedestrians entered a crosswalk.

No matter how fast they were coming, drivers obeyed one of the cardinal rules and slammed on their brakes when they saw you. It was as though you walked protected behind some real wall of yellow paint on the street. It was not a real wall of course but in the minds of the drivers it might as well have been. Drivers accepted the rule of law and ruled out the rule of man.

As a young child and for much of the decade not a driver myself, I remember how remarkable that seemingly simple act of stopping for pedestrians was to me. It made me feel safe, a good thing for a child to feel. Doesn't hurt as an adult either, I imagine. It made me see this city then as a place where people behaved in a civilized manner with regard to one another. Even though there was a law creating the relationship, drivers and pedestrians followed it.

And we L.A. pedestrians had our own set of rules that were designed to protect the rights of drivers. We had to obey crossing signals and not cross against a "Don't Walk" sign. No jay walking was allowed and we walked the additional 3 feet to a crosswalk. None of this took place in the free-for-all that seemed to be New York. When I returned home after the summer to go back to school and would actually wait at the corner for the light to change, I was the subject of scorn. "Ivan's gone Hollywood" they would say.

Then came the 1960's and following decades. While the driving and walking laws remained on the books, we had, over the ensuing 40 years, a series of significant sociological and economic changes in our country that apparently somehow impacted upon our internal value systems. We had a major war. We had a number of assassinations of public figures. We had the 80's, when we bought into the "me first" mentality. Something happened to us over this time. Maybe we lost a sense of the innocence of the 50's. I cannot say what changed inside but many things changed outside.

One of the things that changed outside was that drivers seem to stop giving pedestrians the right of way. And pedestrians seem to stop waiting for the "Walk" sign. It was "caveat walker" and everyone for himself. It stopped feeling safe.

Maybe what changed inside was that we lost our civility. What we seemed to have lost was our ability to respect the rights of others, not out of some sense of altruism but out of a sense of self-respect. Depriving others of their rights, by war or under some other guise, seemed to both create as well as justify the loss of respect we once had for each other. Those who would act without civility and deprive others of their rights actually deprive themselves of rights.

For it seems to me that if we do not respect the rights of others it may be because we do not respect ourselves. If we cannot act toward someone else with civility, we reflect our own lack of civility. It takes the secure individual, the person who knows who they are and what they are about to give rights to another. When we deny others their rights it seems a certain reflection on our own lack of self-worth. It is as though there were some finite amount of civility in the world and if we provide it to someone else, we may find ourselves lacking in the same. This is one of the ways in which the idea of scarcity makes itself apparent in "real life." If there's not enough of anything to go around, then by all means get all you can and ignore the rights of the other. If we see the world as scarce, this all makes sense. And perhaps all the loss we experienced collectively during the past 40 years have made us see the world in this fashion.

When, on the other hand, we see the universe as an abundant place, then we can allow others their rights without it appearing as though we are losing ours at the same time.

Civility, after all, is found in huge quantities. It isn't out there in the streets, however. It's not in the crosswalk. It's in our hearts.

© 1996 Ivan Hoffman


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