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OFF CENTRE: Me, you and public misdoing

Sherwyn Walters

OFF CENTRE: Me, you and public misdoing

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“Ig’rant as a bus gine down a hill widdout brakes.”

That is the thought that came to mind, I must say, when that person pushed their way in front of my vehicle, forcing me to stop where there was no pedestrian crossing (and where one was nearby).

Imperiously screw-faced, they deigned not to seek a “by your leave” and sauntered – yes, sauntered – across, as if by right. Not a hurry, not a sorry, not a “thanky”, not a sympathy that they nearly caused me to knock them down or that I coulda get the back o’ my car lick in. Was that you?

We seem to have significantly lost that sense of the public sphere being the domain where we crucially show our respect for others (that most consequential of community values).

So, was that you?

Or was it you who waltzed through the supermarket aisles, music loudly intruding on other shoppers’ intent, your portable device the weapon of choice to assault that woman with a miserable babe in arms, that old man studying how he was going to make not enough money stretch, that many-children mother who just lost her job and was almost dazedly looking at the shelves of plenty in her time of little?

Was it you who rent the quiet beach atmosphere with your disrespectfully booming music the other day, sonically tearing through the public space with little regard for others, full (in volume and mind) to the hilt of dismissive self-indulgence?

Was it you who palm-steered your vehicle into the clearly indicated parking space for the disabled, hopped out without a second thought, without a guilty look – your only concerns: me, myself and I?

Was it you who, in ironic affront to the leadership in lawfulness expected of you as representing our best, parked a Government vehicle right beside a No Parking sign?

Was it you who made me wince, cringe and have all manner of near-seizures as I tried to mount defences against your deluge of “brass bowls” and such in that restaurant, like a cutlass attack in a public place?

Was it you who slowed to a crawl in the middle of everybody’s about-their-own-business day, unconcernedly into cellphone back and forths, car drifting as if driven by a drunk – and no thought to pull over and let others get on with their lives and their safety?

Was it you who, more loudly than a genuine sense of propriety would countenance, spilled your conversation about anal sex into (all) the surrounding air, not a thought (apparently) for public morals, far less the sensitivities of others outside of the circle of that confab?

And is it you who have often railed against public misconduct and were nodding your head in agreeing lament when I dealt with others’ trespasses but all of a sudden get vex with me when I hit the spot of your own infringement? I is the villain now, right?

Two-faced. People like to reserve the word “hypocrite” for supposedly religious people who behave in ways that don’t accord with their professings, but two-facedness has other culprits – not least among them those who offend in public areas.

Such offences speak of our diminishing civility. Don’t we understand that when we misbehave in public, it is not simply a personal matter? Apart from the inconvenience or distress visited upon others directly, we set in train additional negative tendencies. We affect the moral fabric, the moral tenor. And if individuals hold themselves to no standards in their treatment of others in public, God alone knows what other limits they will barge through.

But how do we rein in such public impropriety?

How do we influence what goes on in the public space? Do we hope that the home and the school and the church will engage in training their “charges” (as though they exist in a vacuum) and all will be well when they enter the public space? But won’t they, in many cases, by sullied by what is permitted in that space – despite the “private” training?

I strongly believe that it is the responsibility of the overarching authority (whether of a country or a particular entity) to regulate man’s treatment of man in public spaces. Who else has the reach? Who else has that incontestable authority?

Some people suggest that it is the duty of all of us to do such regulating. And they make it sound as if this responsibility is evenly spread across the board. But wait! By that thinking, the people who are violating the space had the responsibility too and yet they have opted out – with in many cases temerity, in others dismissive disregard and in yet others with threatening intent.

Government, too, surely has the responsibility – the chief one, obviously – and the power, but has often been lax.

If those with the power default and our fellow citizens threaten us with harm or waterwashing with cuss words or, at the very least, benignly disregard us, how does it fall to ordinary me and you to reclaim the public space?

I am really tired of people saying that we all have a duty to restrain the bad behaviour of others, including strangers, in the public space. Listen, I have the duty of restraining myself and those over whom I have charge. And if members of a group I am with are going in the wrong direction, I will take it upon myself to give a word to the unwise – and disconnect myself if unheeded.

I am also willing (and have from time to time done so) to draw misbehaviour to the attention of those in authority. I am even willing to take group social action aimed at staunching some behaviours and at rousing the authorities out of their dereliction.

But I don’t have any duty with the broad masses to seek to impose standards of public behaviour that the Government or the management of the particular enterprise is not diligently attending to. I don’t. Don’ tell me nuh foolishness!

A few self-righteous “heroes” should not urge an unreasonable and unsustainable paradigm on others.

Sure, we bruise the public good if we never mount a challenge to misbehaviour in public spaces. Sure, we injure our nation’s best cause if we double-deal in public behaviour.

But if we excuse Government in its failure to grab hold of the public space, we join in delivering a deathly blow to our loftiest community aspirations.

• Sherwyn Walters is a writer who became a teacher, a song analyst, a broadcaster and an editor.