Respecting the public forum

“Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, and you don’t have to be ugly with yours.”

This sentence in a Daily Beast interview with Scott Van Duzer, the man now known for bear-hugging a campaigning President Obama, crystallized a thought I’d been having for a while. I don’t want to opine here about that incident, what it meant, whether it was scripted, or anything else. Whatever happened, that sentence beautifully expresses a perspective on interacting with other people that I, for one, so often forget about. 

I read that interview about a week after snuggling up with the person who tolerates me to watch a movie called God Bless America. When we looked at it in local movie rental shop Pic-a-Flic, it seemed dark and potentially funny — we weren’t disappointed. 

But, as The Atlantic’s reviewer noted, God Bless America “. . . is no simple wish-fulfillment revenge fantasy. It’s an indictment of us as viewers and tacit supporters of the cultural trash heap.” In the film, late-middle-aged Frank and teenage sociopath Roxy form a strangely well-matched pair of “platonic spree killers,” attempting to wipe out people who are thoughtless and ugly to other people. Though not without issues, it’s an intense film with some great dialogue. It frames its complaint well: the shallowness and lack of empathy that can characterize human behaviour. This is done perhaps most memorably in a scene where Frank and Roxy take out a few teenagers who are talking during a movie. The teenagers are unwilling to respect the shared space of the movie theatre, which might sound like a trivial motive for murder, but in the context of the film it makes its point.

We all do it; we can scarcely avoid doing it. We misunderstand one another’s intents, or we’re distracted, or we’re so wrapped up in our opinions — our own lives — that we fail to notice the people around us and behave in a manner that’s respectful of public spaces. I certainly do this. 

Think of all the people you see in a day, many of whom you won’t interact with in any significant way. You and all those people make up a culture that seems, at times, to be far too close to how Frank characterizes America, “a cruel and vicious place” where the shallowest, dumbest, meanest, and loudest are rewarded for their behaviour and “the worst qualities in people are looked up to and celebrated.” It seems to me, as it seemd to Frank and Roxy, that the problem Frank recognizes begins with the way we act towards the people we see incidentally every day. 

This also isn’t about rights, per se: you have a number of rights to behave in a wide variety of ways. You certainly have the right to an opinion. It’s more about making conscious choices to contribute positively, or at least neutrally, to the public forum. 

I just moved cities, leaving in Victoria the only person who will tolerate my general moodiness and a whole series of hopes and schemes for the immediate future. I’ve retired to my parents’ Vancouver basement to — hopefully — save some money and think about the future. I’m back and forth every week right now, taking the last two classes of my degree. 

It’s a time for thinking about what kind of life I want to live. I see a lot of faces. Some I know, most I don’t. But I have a relationship, however incidental, with each of them, and I’m trying not to screw it up.

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