Home » Culture » Spitting Image 2:5 — Keeping within the lines

Spitting Image 2:5 — Keeping within the lines

parking jobWhat’s wrong with this picture?

Well, that really depends; if there is no shortage of available parking spaces, or no handicapped spots open, perhaps nothing at all; if it is a one-time, careless indiscretion, it might be dismissed; if it is an expression of neurotic fear that others will damage the paint job by carelessly throwing open their doors, it might be understood, if not condoned.

But if it is symptomatic of indifference to the conventions of parking and the potential inconvenience to others, then it becomes something else entirely.

There is a good reason why lines are painted in parking lots.  And there is more than one good reason to park one’s car between them.

We can apply the same principle to other conventions, some within the formal dictates of the law and others simply defined by custom and culture.  Rolling stops at intersections, or disregarding stop signs altogether on a lonely road in the middle of the night.  Changing lanes without signaling, or disturbing passengers on the subway with loud voices or offensive speech.  Pushing into an elevator without waiting for its occupants to exit first, or cutting the line at the ticket booth.  Setting the knife on the dinner table with blade turned outward, or not using cutlery at all.

Are there worse things?  Of course there are.  Should these things be legislated?  For the most part, definitely not.

But is there something lost when we lose respect for these “trivial” conventions?  Undeniably there is.

In his insightful book Civility, Stephen L. Carter explains the common root that turns “civility” into “civilization.”  Of course we have to be a nation of laws; that’s a given.  But just as important is being a nation of respectfulness, consideration, and self-reflection.  Taking into account how our actions will affect others is not a matter for legislation; it is the symptom of a morally healthy world view, and of an awareness that what others expect from me is inseparable from what I can expect from others.

Like the proven “broken windows” theory of urban renewal, the respect I show for convention will serve as a model for others, making it easier for them to retain their own respect for the minutiae of personal conduct that produces a more pleasant society for everyone.

Even if we want to indulge our selfishness, respect for convention benefits us as well.  The same discipline that makes me complete my set of 15 reps in the gym when I really want to stop after 12, that makes me finish my peas before I serve myself dessert, that makes me vacuum under the sofa even though no one is going to see the accumulated dust there — all these little concessions to doing things right reinforces our commitment to doing good and doing right on a grander scale by reminding us that there is a higher ideal in the world than our own individual comfort and convenience.

So there is good reason to park between the lines even when the parking lot is empty.  Because you never know what other lines you may be tempted to cross, and you may not recognize the danger of crossing them until you’ve already gone over the edge.


2 Comments

  1. […] Source: Spitting Image 2:5 — Keeping within the lines […]

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