Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Ring my bell

Posted by digglahhh on 16 June 2007

My current next door neighbor moved in when I was still in college. Today I live there with my girlfriend and rambunctious pitbull/labrador mix, but back then, with my younger brother, two friends on a daily basis, a group of about five semi-regulars, and a group of about twenty any of whom might stay over on any given evening. Five was par for a weeknight, twice as many wasn’t uncommon on any given weekend. Those were only those who stayed over. My mother technically lived there, but essentially did so only in the eyes of the post office.

My neighbor didn’t take too kindly to the constant party scene. With his longish hair and relatively unkempt facial hair, he projected something of a hipster aesthetic. Occasionally, I would hear him playing acoustic guitar. But he also came off as cautious. When he would come over to complain about the noise coming from my apartment, he’d be apologetic about it, but not because he was seeking compromise, just because he feared confrontation. Rebellious and empowered with a sense of tenure, as a twenty-plus year resident of the building, I just ignored his complaints. Never did I give him a reason to be fearful of approaching me about the noise. I was trying to condition him to realize that his efforts were ineffectual, and lead him to stop on his own. Honestly, he did have legitimate beefs most of the time, but many times he did not. Two in the morning on a Tuesday, yes I should shut down the music. Ten in the evening on a Saturday, you must be trying to make enemies.

As time passed, the scene in the house mellowed out. A crescendo of drug use passed. I had learned what a courtroom looked like from the other side of the jury box, and I decided that I did not want to continue such a lifestyle, at least in the excess and with the regularity that I had been. By the time I was finishing school, my mother, who still nominally lived with us, was getting ready to officially move out and the crew was down to the two regulars and the occasional small gathering on the weekends – tame by comparison. Still, my neighbor badgered incessantly.

We would get wasted and talk about the things college students talk about, metalinguistics, how the hell Bert Blyleven isn’t in the Hall of Fame, which one of our old high school teachers would win a hypothetical no-holds-barred Battle Royal. The fact that our discussions always had value is something I was very adamant about, and I still am. It was this sensitivity that my neighbor offended in his first really inflammatory transgression.

One weeknight, probably around 11:30 or so, a couple of my friends and I had some music on and are engaged in a discussion, when the bell rang. I’m stating as objectively as possible that we were not engaging in an egregious feat of disturbance. My faux hipster neighbor asked me if we could keep it down. I told him that we were not being very loud. Again he displayed the paradoxical nerve to come to complain without the conviction to actually “stand up for himself.”. His tactic, tried and true, was apologetic pandering. He began talking about how often overheard our conversations. He told me how he would hear us talk about the Knicks sometimes, and that he is a basketball fan too, and he knows we can get passionate about our team. He was rambling (insincerely) about how sometimes he actually felt like he’d like to be part of the discussion, despite the fact that he never attempted to strike up conversation of any kind when I ran into him alone in the elevator or laundry room.

That got me pissed; I don’t like to be patronized. I looked back at him and calmly replied, “Well, right now my friend is claiming that looking back at some of Oscar Wilde’s work you can actually see a lot of the ideas put forth decades later by the Frankfurt School, particularly Benjamin and Adorno. Do you have anything to contribute to that discussion?” Then I slammed the door.

Currently, I have a very active social life but rarely have visitors. My girlfriend and I work opposite schedules and therefore, there is rarely more than one other person in the house, and when there is, at least one of us is usually sleeping. My neighbor recently had a baby. I don’t know who whines more, he or the child.

This past Sunday, at two o’clock in the afternoon I was cleaning the house and bumping some old school hip-hop, mainly Boogie Down Productions and Big Daddy Kane. The Mets game was on mute. I don’t recall Kane hollering “If you ain’t down with Neo-Marxism, ring your neighbor’s bell,” but lo and behold this motherfucker did. He asked me if I could turn the music down; it was the baby’s naptime. I told him that it was 2:00 in the afternoon. I really wanted to ask him why he thinks I should forfeit my right to listen to vintage hip-hop at the decibel level it is supposed to be played just because he forgot to slip on a rubber. Mid-nineties hip-hop was down with safe sex; too bad you slept, homie… The kicker is that I was just about to eject the disc and pop in a soothing and low volume Robert Anton Wilson lecture when he rang. So, it actually looked like I respected his impressively selfish request.

Last week’s entry in this space was a rant about an institutionalized sense of entitlement amongst conservative white males. Today, I have to confess that the most uppity bitch in my building is a Cuban woman approximately sixty years old who is fond of claiming that she’s descended from aristocracy. She’s head of the Co-op board; I, the white male, am one of the building’s last renters. That’s right, take a good look at the Fidel Castro shirt, keep your mouth shut. You wouldn’t want my pit to have herself a little snack in the form of your pocketbook dog, now would you?…

But the question that fascinates me is, what makes my neighbor think he is entitled to live a life of culture and access in New York City while maintaining a completely insular home environment? The interplay of art, culture, noise, and bustle in the public and private spheres is a big part of what makes New York City what it is. This is the birthplace of hip-hop, the world’s most dominant culture, and that culture was born from kids dragging sound systems to the block and duffle bags of spray cans to the train yards on a mission to blur the lines between the private and the public. Some consider the birth of hip-hop to be reverse-colonialism.

Were I to ironically use conservative rhetoric, I’d tell him that he should have studied harder in school, and then he would have been able to afford a nice house on a plot of land big enough to not worry about what his neighbor does. But that’s not what he wants. He, like so many of the new residents of this recently castrated city, wants to have his cake and to eat it too.

Cultural metropolises don’t come out of a box. New York City is an ecosystem. It is a set of complex interactions that produce a rich and historic sense of culture, diversity and passion. Crime and noise are like bugs, nuisances maybe, but necessary components to the whole. You can’t just exterminate them and not get reverberating effects. When you kick prostitution and drug dealers out of Times Square and buff the graffiti off the trains you aren’t just curing “eyesores” or “improving the quality of life.” You are redrawing the lines of a social battleground, you are making it safe for corporate rule, stabbing at the arteries of the city’s uniqueness. More importantly, as it turns out, you have traded local, small scale immorality for large scaled institutionalized immorality, replacing street wisdom with plastic values. The unattainable images of beauty put forth by Conde Nast and Disney, now occupying Times Square, has done more damage to women’s bodies and self image than any pimp or fresh john ever could! When those who create wealth off the oppression of others feel safe around those they oppress, the city has become dysfunctional.

You come to a place like New York City to find an alternative to the cookie-cutter structure of suburban sprawl and the glass menagerie of Middle American values (if you can’t buy a blow job at 8th Avenue and 42nd Street, where in America is someone from Utah or Missouri supposed to go?). So, while I try to respect my neighbors by any reasonable standard, I will not be shutting down the music in mid-afternoon on a weekend.

Can I turn down the music? See, I’d love to, but I can’t trust you to educate your child about the musical anthology of the Wu Tang Clan, so I’m just going to have to do my New Yorker duty and do it for you. The least you could do is show a bit of gratitude.

If I believed in God, I’d thank her that my neighbor didn’t live on 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the early 1970’s, next to Clive Campbell, Clive might never have become Kool Herc if he did..

37 Responses to “Ring my bell”

  1. Swanny said

    I wonder if this piece would not sound quite as arrogant had your neighbor brought a prop (my choice is usually a Louisville Slugger, aluminum bats have a sad tendency to wrap around a skull when swung hard enough and they’re hell to get free) with which to add his voice to the baseball discussion. I wonder if then perhaps instead of pithily commenting on your need to expose him to your tastes (which is its own form of oppression despite your rather arch tone), you’d rather be detailing how your neighbor was oppressing your freedom of expression. Or more likely it’d just be a post from Meta, explaining that you’d not be posting for a bit while you recuperated.

  2. Steven, is that you?

  3. digglahhh said

    Swanny,

    Oh, you’s a bad motherfucker over the internet, aintcha!

    I forgot how sarcasm is lost on conservative fringes, my sincere thanks for letting Juvenal’s work survive to tell a people’s version of Roman history. Oh, and disregard any Onion references on this site, that is just a private joke, as nothing like that really exists.

    Now, you wanna know the truth Swanny? I was always nice to this guy, but the house was intimidating, there’s no way around that. And I can assure that you would have done no such thing, and if you did, it would have been one of the worst decisions of your life. Threatening a crew of a dozen with one baseball bat… you better be Rogers fucking Hornsby (notice how I chose the conservatice prickdom, to be as accurate as possible [could have went with Cap Anson, but I’m erring on the side of caution]).

    Keep flexing your guns in the mirror though. You are very believable…

  4. I really, really, really, hope your neighbor is named Angus . . .

  5. Swanny said

    See, Diggie, there’s one thing about a ballbat: a crew of 12 might do damage after the fact, but the person nearest the bat’s gonna suffer far worse regardless of the possible future consequences due the batter. So the decision facing the person is whether it is worth it to endure the immediate suffering under the assumption that ye’ll be avenged after the fact and that the site of blood doesn’t make the posse blanch?

    Sarcasm after the fact is often the happy escape of those who recognize in hindsight just how obnoxious they actually sounded.

    I don’t need to flex. I’m a white male, I already know I rule.

  6. Again he displayed the paradoxical nerve to come to complain without the conviction to actually “stand up for himself.”. His tactic, tried and true, was apologetic pandering.

    What are you saying? You’ll accept your neighbor’s request to modify your behavior only if he’s capable of beating you up? Or only if he will, in fact, actually beat you up if you don’t comply?

    Is there, maybe, a positive obligation to respect the reasonable requests of one’s neighbors (assuming they are such) as an act of conscious and willing conformity of one’s behavior to moral norms, rather than merely by compulsion? Why should he have to be willing or even able to beat you up to get you to behave reasonably?

    He asked me if I could turn the music down; it was the baby’s naptime. I told him that it was 2:00 in the afternoon. I really wanted to ask him why he thinks I should forfeit my right to listen to vintage hip-hop at the decibel level it is supposed to be played just because he forgot to slip on a rubber. . . . [I]t actually looked like I respected his impressively selfish request.

    Well, who’s being selfish? Him having a baby and wanting it to sleep peacably, or you playing music loud enough to keep his baby awake inside his apartment?

    You both have (implicit or explicit) normative claims to make, both to back up your position and to impugn the other’s: You state you have a “right to listen to vintage hip-hop at the decibel level it is supposed to be played” whether or not it keeps the neighbors awake, and that he has no right to demand quiet because he chose to have a baby; his implicit claim is that he has a “right to quiet enjoyment” of his apartment and you have an obligation not to make that impossible.

    I might observe first that his claims are ones that are generally recognized in law and social practice, and yours are precisely the sort of thing those laws and practices are set up to deny. But I don’t mean to valorize bourgeios notions of social conformity and property ownership preferentially above your right to blast vintage hip-hop. I might also observe that your implication that your neighbors should just never have babies if they cannot do so while you are keeping it real seems a tad extreme, babies being a non-mandatory but still fairly common (and at least to some degree necessary) feature of the species. But let’s consider the larger question of what people have a right to expect and demand.

    You’re right that it is New York’s deviance from mainstream dullness that makes it the great place it is. And I am one who was sorry to see 42nd St. Disneyfied, and a lot of other forms of excitement taken out of the city. But there is a longstanding and vital civil norm that, I think, both shouldn’t be abandoned and – what the squares feared most, or at least never understood – that is also compatible with deviance and at least a minor degree of lawlessness: that is the notion of mutually tolerant rights of private behavior. This is the principle, central to classical liberalism, that no one is to be interered with either for reasons of personal disapproval or by substitution of another’s judgment of that person’s welfare for their own – but that no one’s pursuit of their private ends is allowed to materially interfere with another’s similar pursuit. That is, you may do what you want without interference, but you may not tell others what to do, and you may not prevent them from doing it; where your actions and theirs conflict, a compromise is needed that preserves as much liberty as possible for both.

    This principle of mutual liberty is what makes 42nd St – the real Deuce, not the plastic Mouse version – possible; it is also what makes hip-hop possible in a world ruled by squares. But it requires restraint on the part of those who exercise their freedoms in ways the impinge on others. Playing music so loud that it prevents neighbors, or their children, from sleeping in their own apartments is a violation of that principle. You can indulge your pursuits with minimal infringement by wearing headphones or playing the music at lower volume; perhaps that’s not “the decibel level it was meant to be played”, but you can hardly claim you’ve been completely prevented from pursuing your ends. Keeping someone else awake – especially a baby – by playing it loud enough they can’t sleep inside their apartment, simply because you refuse to make any concession in your apartment, completely disrupts a normal and reasonable expectation on their part.

    Your defense throughout your post seems to be, partly, that New York can’t be what it is and still adopt the principle of mutual liberty, and partly also that your version of New York is better than the square version or even just the non-hip-hop version, and therefore takes precedence. I suspect both those claims are wrong – that “keeping it real” doesn’t require being a confrontational asshole (or if it does, you are thereby verifying the complaints about hip-hop anti-sociability that the squares have always been making), and that whatever artistic merits there may be in transgressive cultures do not justify harming others to achieve them. I don’t think Gaugin was justified in abandoning his family to paint dusky maidens in the South Seas, and I don’t think the Hip-Hop Nation is justified in tormenting people’s babies because of their “right to listen to vintage hip-hop at the decibel level it is supposed to be played”.

    Painting train trestles: OK, nobody gets hurt. Drumming on plastic buckets on street corners: annoying, but it’s public space. Selling what people are buying on 42nd St.: freedom in action. There are plenty of ways for New York to nurture artistry and self-expression that don’t involve fucking up other people’s lives. But making it physically impossible for people to carry on the ordinary functions of life inside their own private space – no matter the time of day or how important you think your musical tastes are, compared to a baby’s need for sleep – is a disproportionate invasion of their right to their own peaceful pursuits.

  7. digglahhh said

    KTK,

    Let address a couple of things.

    I’m not talking about a physical conviction on my neighbor’s part, or the willingness for him to throw down or “keep it real” (at least you’ve kept that colloquial perversion that functions as a generic cultural excuse for any form of ignorance in quotation marks throughout your reply). I’m talking about him knowing that he is ashamed to do what he is doing. I’m talking about him exuding a body language that says that he is embarrassed – not afraid – to do what he is doing. Who can kick who’s ass is irrelevant. My apartment hasn’t been anywhere among the noisiest in the building for many years now. Still, he complains. I’m not saying that I don’t ever, or have never offended, but that his tolerance is far below that which you must develop to live in a working class neighborhood in New York City.

    It’s 2:00 in the afternoon on a Sunday. Where do you draw the line? What if he didn’t have a baby, is he then more justified to complain? There is nothing in the lease that states that one should modify one’s behavior because of the family situation of one’s neighbors. The walls are very thin. I play loud music once or twice a month. Get over it!

    What about when his kid starts having birthday parties and play dates? The real myopia is that, by any objective scale, within the next few years his apartment will easier be far more noisy than mine. There’s no “give” in this dynamic. And even when the apartment was at its worst, there was a wolf-crying boy dynamic. I didn’t begin by me ignoring his requests, at the beginning I accommodated them. He just made so many unjustified ones that it undermined his credibility to the point that I became completely unsympathetic to any of his complaints, justified or not.

    My apartment : my neighbor :: your posts : Fred. It don’t matter, he’s gonna find a reason to bitch.

    I don’t think it is a reasonable expectation for your home to remain at library levels in the middle of a weekend day in New York City, period. Okay, so even if I shut my radio, what about the kids running up and down the block and screaming, the cars passing by with radios audible for blocks, the normal afternoon hallway traffic of bells ringing and doors locking and unlocking. My upstairs neighbors are far noisier than I. I’ve complained, to my recollection, three times, in the last several years. All three of them were after midnight and were done so simply by banging a broom on the ceiling.

    Substitute the hip-hop fair hair-metal, Motown, or whatever. I’m not really pushing my tastes on this guy, that part was just a joke (though learning about it very well might help him better understand the character of his residence).

  8. digglahhh said

    Swanny,

    “I don’t need to flex. I’m a white male, I already know I rule.”

    Not where I live, buddy!

    You also must be under the mistaken impression that there’s anybody in the house who hadn’t at any point in their past been struck with a baseball bat.

    See you put me in a weird position. Your contrived internet personality’s macho posturing is really tempting me to, ostensibly, brag about things I’m not really all that proud of.

  9. Swanny said

    See Diggie, that’s the thing about the internet, ya just never know from one’s postings where they came from and what they have seen and done. Besides, anybody who walked away from a confrontation with a ballbat was dealing with someone who hadn’t the slightest idea how to wield one. But please, thrill me with the terrifying tales of your shamefully violent past. I’m certain they’ll leave me a quivering mass of apologetic goo. Or not. This thread needs a good pissing contest.

  10. I just want to point out that, as far as I know, the only person in this all-white-guy discussion to have lived in the ghetto in the last few years is the “keeping it real”-but-only-in-quotes (KTK).

  11. Swanny said

    What? My two years in Spanish Harlem doesn’t count? Geez.

  12. I don’t think it is a reasonable expectation for your home to remain at library levels in the middle of a weekend day in New York City, period. Okay, so even if I shut my radio, what about the kids running up and down the block and screaming, the cars passing by with radios audible for blocks, the normal afternoon hallway traffic of bells ringing and doors locking and unlocking.

    There are two issues here. One is whether your neighbor is complaining just to be a dick. If he is, then he’s a dick. That’s pretty straightforward.

    But you also seem to be saying that because our town is a hard and thumping place, it’s out of line for a new parent to turn down your music when his baby’s trying to sleep. And I don’t get that.

    You say you play loud music once or twice a month. Most of those times — unless the music stays on loud all day those days — you’re not going to overlap with naps. Sometimes the kid’ll go to sleep before the music starts, and won’t be woken by it, too. Sounds like we’re talking about you turning down the tunes once every few months for about a year, until the kid gets big enough to sleep like a New Yorker. Doesn’t sound like a huge burden to me.

    If you don’t turn down the music, though, there’s a dad on the other side of the wall trying to soothe a cranky, over-tired, freaking-out kid while someone else’s music rattles his brain and his cupboards. If I’m that dad, and I ask you to turn it down, and you blow me off, you’ve fucked up my whole day.

    You say it’s unreasonable to ask a neighbor to turn down his music at two o’clock on a Sunday, but our city isn’t about the clock. If there’s a huge impromptu street party in front of your house at midnight on the day of the World Cup final, you’re a dick if you call the cops and have them break it up just because they’re out cheering for the team that beat your team. You might get away with that in Staten Island, but not in the city. You don’t like the fireworks outside your window after extra-innings Cyclones games? Move. They’re part of the ecosystem, and you’re gonna have to deal.

    But you playing BDP isn’t the ecosystem, it’s you playing BDP. And your neighbor knocking on your door isn’t the forces of Times Square corporatization, he’s a stressed-out New Yorker with a tired baby. And you should cut him some slack.

  13. “for a new parent to turn down”

    For a new parent to ask you to turn down, that should be.

  14. digglahhh said

    See, the pissing contest is exactly what I want to avoid. The gauntlet was thrown down by Swanny posting that he would have come over yielding a baseball bat and swinging at me. What a ridiculous assertion!

    I’m not going to indulge Swanny’s puerile taunts any further. Sorry, you’re just going to have to use your imagination.

    I don’t know what sort of barometer of ghetto-ness you are using, Meta. I think it is pretty subjective what one calls “the ghetto.” You have some neighborhoods that are slam dunks and some that are certainly not ghettos. Many neighborhoods in the city exist somewhere in the middle.

    Forty-plus whorehouses busted in a 30 block stretch along one avenue. A reputation as one of the biggest cocaine distribution centers in the city in the 80s, big enough that it has been referenced in movies. A well-known center of illegal immigrant day laborers and homes where multiple occupants share a single rented room. I dunno, Meta, if you want it, it’s there. Anybody down for an interesting discussion about the social and etymological differences between “the hood” and “the ghetto?”

    But, what does living in the ghetto, or the borderline ghetto have to do with “keeping it real?” Re-reading your response, I think I may have confused you with my comments about “keeping it real.” I never used the term myself. And, when I noted how KTK put it in quotes, I didn’t intend to imply that he has to quote it, while I could just say it, or anything like that. I simply meant that it was a mangled, and co-opted catchphrase that means absolutely nothing.

    You’re not “keeping it real” by judging whether you respect somebody’s wishes based on who would win a fight anymore than you are “speaking truth to power” by telling your boss to “fuck off” when he asks you where the report you were supposed to be preparing is.

    Have you ever seen Dave Chappelle’s “When Keeping it Real Goes Wrong” skits?

  15. Swanny said

    Ridiculous? Nah. Appropriate. Yep.

    Puerile and contrived are nice shiny words, Digg, but when they’re based on assumptions, y’know how that goes.

    I usually base ghetto on how many murders and or violent crimes have been recorded over the last calendar year. Sure, it can just be a poor area, but if they’re not killing each other it’s just not ghetto to me.

  16. digglahhh said

    I hear ya, BK.

    And, I think that your response is very sensible. Absent the history, I would have no problem with accommodating his request.

    I included the info about the past only to begin to explain the complex dynamic. He’s a very sensitive neighbor, I was an apartment from hell. I turned the page. Does he resent the past shit? Sure. Does that influence his sensitivity? I don’t know.

    I’m not sure if I really understand your point about what is and what isn’t the ecosystem though. I’m an organism in the ecosystem. I’d be free of culpability if I decided to take the radio outside, grab some cardboard and organize an impromptu b-boy battle?

    And yes, BK, out city isn’t about the clock. But his baby’s nap time is, what is the city supposed to do about that?

    Less than a year ago, I was working nights. I’m up while people are sleeping and sleeping when they are up. Well, what if my neighbor wanted to do some renovations to his apartment, would I ever think about complaining if he stars hammering at 10:30 in the morning on a Saturday? No. Does it matter if I went to bed at 6:00? No. When you make lifestyle choices, how they mesh with your living environment is a consideration.

  17. The Brooklynite post that KTK referenced is pretty interesting. It’s about reasonable accommodations to those who decide to raise kids. And a case can be made that the logical extension of it is that Digglahhh ought to make the appropriate CD-playing accommodations, just as he ought to put up with a certain amount of seat-kicking on an airplane.

    But the other argument is that if we’re to accommodate the seat-kicking and wailing in supermarkets and all the rest, then dad has to be equally tolerant of a kid kept from napping by some loud music. My problem is, both these positions seem reasonable to me.

  18. digglahhh said

    Yeah. When I first read Brooklynite’s post, I was conflicted. BK might have succeeded better than I did with the sort of self-righteous jerk deserving of a little sympathy duality.

    People complain, “Control your kid!” l ike it is that easy…

    I actually got into an argument with my girlfriend’s parents and my grandmother about this a couple of months ago at dinner. They were feeding off each other and indulging in the “parents can’t control their kids” rhetoric.

    “Wow what a coincidence, only two families who raised their kids perfectly, two kids who never threw tantrums or ruined anybody’s meal at a restaurant and they happen to both be sitting right here at this very table. What are the chances?!”

    Saying that your kid’s tantrum is part of some master plan is a little euphemistic and probably gives yourself too much credit as a parent, in a grand sense. But, it is certainly a step up from denying that your child, like every other breathing one, is capable of being a horror.

    At the very least, it postpones judgment. Now, when that kid takes the SATS, the dude who politely dealt with the back of his chair being kicked on the plane a dozen years prior better be on the mailing list for the results…

    In general, I’m a lot more forgiving when children throw tantrums than adults though. That’s also why I didn’t last very long as a Little League umpire…

  19. Seems to me, D, that the public and semi-public interaction between people is the ecosystem. Individual people are organisms. Your decision to play your music or not inside your home on a particular Sunday afternoon is a private, personal decision that doesn’t much affect the ecosystem — except to the extent that the sound seeps through your walls.

    And yeah, I think that if your music on that afternoon was a part of the neighborhood’s social mix, you’d be on firmer ground declining to turn it off. There’s not a bright line, but I think there is a distinction.

    As for working nights, my old upstairs neighbor had a nightclub act. If she’d staggered downstairs one Saturday morning at 10:30 to tell me she’d just gotten to sleep and to ask nicely whether I could maybe put off the hammering for a few hours, I’d totally put the tools away.

    If your argument is that the city isn’t bound by bourgeois convention, seems to me that what matters is whether someone’s trying to sleep, not whether The Man’s clock says he should be sleeping.

  20. if we’re to accommodate the seat-kicking and wailing in supermarkets and all the rest, then dad has to be equally tolerant of a kid kept from napping by some loud music

    Well, I’d say if a kid wakes someone up with the seat-kicking or the wailing, the offended party has a much stronger case.

    A lot of it, for me (not all of it, but a lot of it) comes down to whose life would be most disrupted by acceding. In the loud music situation, D has to change the music, or put on headphones to satisfy the neighbor. The neighbor has to put up with a screaming kid for the length of a CD (or several), or vacate his apartment and try to get the kid to nap somewhere else.

  21. The Brooklynite post [implies] that Digglahhh ought to make the appropriate CD-playing accommodations, just as he ought to put up with a certain amount of seat-kicking on an airplane [because kids need some accomodation].

    But the other argument is that . . . dad has to be equally tolerant of a kid kept from napping by some loud music. My problem is, both these positions seem reasonable to me.

    Brooklynite’s argument is predicated on the notion that everyone has an equal right to participate in the public sphere, and thus a right to the accommodations that make that possible – be they wheelchair ramps, closed-captioning on TV, or toleration of ranting, screaming, or seat-kicking by children or the mentally disabled. Digglahhh’s argument is predicated on the somewhat similar notion that New York, distinctly, has an environment that presupposes (or should) a certain laxity in social norms and a general tolerance-by-having-no-choice of screaming, blaring, graffiti, and petty crime up to at least a certain level. And both those arguments are appealing, but they both operate by privileging one social value (inclusion; cultural diversity) idiosyncratically. Interestingly, when you do that you (duh!) wind up with conflicts between parties espousing one value, and thus tolerance of the impositions that make that value operative, and parties espousing the other value and the impositions that that value presumes. Brooklynite and Digglahhh have both demanded accommodations from others on the basis of the importance of the value they hold that necessitaties such accommodations; however, the values they each just happen to hold can’t be asserted simultaneously. (And it’s not a criticism of either Brooklynite or Digglahhh, but neither is it in any way surprising, that the one espousing tolerance for citizens lacking behavioral control has 2 toddlers and a mentally-disabled adult in his close family, while the one espousing mandatory counterculture for all is a hip-hop fanatic.)

    My point in connecting these threads (one of which now spans 4 different blogs!), aside from simple shit-stirring, is to suggest that merely asserting the primacy of the thing you care about most is not going to get you anywhere in establishing a social consensus about what we’re all entitled to and all expected to put up with. There has to be some prior value that prioritizes our other, more-specific values.

    I’ve suggested, above and on Brooklynite’s blog, that there is an existing, widely-accepted, standard for assigning priorities to social values and mediating conflicts between them, and which does not privilege any particular one above another, unfairly, beforehand. That is the classical liberal standard of mutual liberty – of freedom to act up to the point that you trespass upon others’ right to act with an equal degree of freedom. (The notion of “equal degree” is deeply problematic, but that doesn’t seem to be the matter in dispute in the cases we’re discussing.) The principle that people should simply be left alone to do their own thing up to the point that they’re preventing others from doing their own thing, and that conflicts should be resolved so as to preserve maximal liberty on both sides, is not merely a good idea; it flows directly from standard theories of the social contract and teleological (human-goal-centered) ethics. It is a necessary part of the give-and-take that makes organized society possible, and not merely in the practical sense of avoiding anarchy, but in the moral sense of having any standards or norms at all that are not mere unilateral assertions of private interest backed up by baseball-bat-wielding confrontations.

    But that principle does not imply a push-me-pull-you equal division of indulgences in every case of dispute. In some disputes, one person is simply right and the other is simply wrong. And what is particularly determinative of such disputes, under the principle of mutual liberty, is the actual infringement on another’s freedom of action. The fact that somebody doesn’t like what you’re doing is irrelevant, but the fact that it materially interferes with their ability to do what it is they choose to – that does matter. Playing music in public that people don’t like: their problem. Playing music in your home so loud they can’t perform necessary bodily functions in their homes: your problem. Your child running up and down the aisles of an airplane: their problem. Your child kicking someone in the ass even once: your problem. Needing wheelchair ramps to get into a theater: their problem. Talking, crying, or blurting out loud during the show: your problem. And yes, some of these constraints may make it simply impossible to do what you want to do, if what you want to do makes it impossible for someone else to do what they want and have a reasonable expectation of being allowed to do. (The fact that some of these expectations – like quiet in a movie theater, or in one’s own apartment – are culturally shaped does not make them irrelevant.) Not every solution is a compromise; in some cases, one party must simply cease what they’re doing, if there’s no exercise of freedom on their part that preserves a reasonable degree of liberty on the other side.

    This principle may also systematically constrain certain ways of living, or certain forms of expression: If hip-hop has to be played loud enough to keep the neighbors awake, then it can never be played, or at least not except under controlled circumstances. If someone is absolutely incapable of participating in public events that presume quiet attention without shouting or disrupting, then they shouldn’t participate. But that result does not arise from a value judgment that certain interests are more important than others: that babies matter more or less than adults’ peace and quiet, or that hip-hop matters more or less than babies’ peace and quiet. The principle that points toward these conclusions is one that inherently treats all interests equally; it discriminates on the basis of the ability to accommodate others’ interests to an egalitarian equilibrium. That resolution is both fair and necessary.

  22. Saying that your kid’s tantrum is part of some master plan is a little euphemistic and probably gives yourself too much credit as a parent, in a grand sense. But…

    I can see where it came off that way, but I was really more trying to argue that the parental response to the tantrum has to take into account other factors than just how to end it so that other people in the vicinity can get their ears back.

    I wrote a piece a few months ago that talked about public space issues in more detail, and specifically disavowed the “not my kid” defense. That piece is here.

  23. digglahhh said

    Yeah, I agree with you, BK.

    A big problem with quelling the tantrum immediately, in order to please others in the public sphere, is that the quickest solution is not the most healthy. You don’t teach your children manners or modertation, or whatever lesson you are trying to teach them by either caving to their screaming demands or resorting to bribery to stop the whining – usually the quickest ways to accommodate the public’s desire.

    So, yes, as a parent, your most important goal is not to stop the tantrum by any means necessary, so that the guy next to you on the train can fuck up his Sudoku puzzle in peace.

    Your post got a little “micro” at times, and that might have put some people off. I understand that it is not the specific tantrum on one day at the MOMA that needs to be handled in a certain manner to ensure healthy development of your child, but that there needs to be a general vision to the way you view and deal with your child’s misbehavior. Succumbing to the desire of those who are sharing your public space, at all costs, is not necessarily the good parenting decision, and those pressuring you to do so are too distant from the situation to have anything but their own interests at heart.

  24. digglahhh said

    KTK,

    I’d say that, in practice, and filtered through a social lens, concessions made for the enjoyment of a music that has the racial and cultural history, aesthetic, and image that hip-hop has, are not going to be given a fair shake when it comes to “mutual freedom” or “equal degree.” The privileging of certain behaviors, tastes, ideals, the politics of cloaking organized white immorality, immorality of the wealthy through institutionalization versus the demonization of the immorality of the poor, black and brown individual immorality, is what hip-hop is about.

    ” How am I wrong if I kill a nigga who punch me, but it’s alright for you to blow up a whole country?” -Saigon, Shok TV

    My hip-hop generation calls for exactly that, for equal measures of punishment to be exacted on equal acts of infringing upon and destroying one’s livelihood, peace, and future. They haven’t seen it happen though, so they aren’t going to be swayed by ethical arguments they see the power structure violate as a means of policy.

    So, I do object, somewhat, to using this scale of equal degree and mutual liberty argument. The realities and contexts are much deeper than that.

    “…merely asserting the primacy of the thing you care about most is not going to get you anywhere in establishing a social consensus about what we’re all entitled to and all expected to put up with. There has to be some prior value that prioritizes our other, more-specific values.”

    We are where we are now because this ideal has never been followed in practice. The prior value that prioritizes the “other, more-specific values” is not an objective philosophical or ethical construct, it is the subjective tastes and self-preserving ideology of the previously existing power structure. Your quote reflects philosophy, ostensibly, in a vacuum. In practice, the “social consensus” is often anything but.

    These sorts of arguments are often used to preserve privilege, and many intellectuals fall victim to them. Our system of values is broken, dysfunctional, I’m not seeking to justify my beliefs or behavior through “logic,” “reason,” “respect,” or any other set of “prior values” as defined by a system I long to see crumble.

    This is becoming a digression now, but, you can’t transpose a philosophical interpretation of ethics, logic, reason, or values into a social setting. What is “logical,” what is “rational” is determined as such by viewing those actions as they relate to the hegemonic value structure. I disagree with the beliefs that our system is organized around (or at least their operational manifestations), so I don’t really care about justifying mine through that lens. When they align, I’m failing.

    I’m operating from a more organic platform. That which defines the relationship is a social environment, New York fucking City, as it has been affectionately called. Mutual liberty has to adapt to that environment, my neighbor and I is a one-to-one dynamic, but our views on this situation are socially influenced by the unique environment. Once NYC decides that it has to accommodate an academic definition of mutual liberty on a socio-cultural scale; it’s fucked, and it isn’t the New York City that became a world-famous cultural phenomenon and creative mecca.

    “This principle may also systematically constrain certain ways of living, or certain forms of expression”

    And that is what happens, because the “social consensus” determining the balance is like the “market” determining the price. The process is corrupt. NYC had a unique social consensus, one truly developed by its people, that was its energy, that is what is disappearing. My neighbor’s world would birth no hip-hop, how much does hip-hop have to respect that world?

  25. Your post got a little “micro” at times, and that might have put some people off.

    Yeah, I can see that. The problem is that until you start talking specifics, everyone keeps tootling along with their mutually exclusive “I know it when I see it” definitions of good and bad parenting, and you never have an actual conversation about the hard cases in the middle.

    Speaking of which, I’ve got a hard case to present to KTK…

  26. And what is particularly determinative of such disputes, under the principle of mutual liberty, is the actual infringement on another’s freedom of action. The fact that somebody doesn’t like what you’re doing is irrelevant, but the fact that it materially interferes with their ability to do what it is they choose to – that does matter. [examples snipped] And yes, some of these constraints may make it simply impossible to do what you want to do, if what you want to do makes it impossible for someone else to do what they want and have a reasonable expectation of being allowed to do.

    What I’m getting at, K, is the situations in which any resolution of a dispute is going to involve someone infringing on someone else’s freedom of action.

    I’m tempted to call you out for a Brooklynite Blog/Lean Left dueling banjos throwdown, and spring this example on you there, but I’ve got a sleeping baby and some time to type right now, and I don’t know when that’s going to happen again, so here goes:

    Let’s say that Person A and Person B leave their houses on the Upper West Side at the same time one weekday morning. Person A is in a wheelchair, Person B is on foot. Person A gets to Starbucks right before Person B, and discovers that an ill-placed table is blocking her access to the store. One of the baristas leaves his station to move the table and its chairs, slowing down the line for a few minutes, and putting B a little behind schedule. B doesn’t know it, but that three-minute delay causes him to miss the bus he would have caught if A hadn’t been on line in front of him.

    B knows he’s running a little late, but he’s got a letter that needs to be postmarked that day. He walks fast to the post office, and arrives before A, but A needs to use the wheelchair lift to get down the post office steps. Turns out that the postal worker running the lift is the only one who knows how to fix the stamp machine that B just put a twenty into, so B has to cool his heels for another five minutes. B sees a crosstown bus pulling into his stop as he leaves the post office, and runs to catch it, but misses it because of the two slowdowns.

    Just as the next bus pulls up, A arrives at the stop, and signals to the driver that she needs to use the wheelchair access at the back of the bus. The driver puts the bus in park, and goes around to the back to operate the lift at the back door. The lift takes the few minutes that it usually does to descend, and the latch that puts up the seats to give the chair a place to be secured is a little finicky, and so it takes five or ten minutes to get underway again. Same rigamarole at Fifth Avenue, where A gets out. (She catches the downtown bus to the Met, and spends the day wandering through the Impressionist galleries, as she does a few times a month.)

    B finally makes it to Lex, and hops on the downtown subway with no problem. He missed two buses because of A, though, and he’s twenty minutes late to class when he arrives at Hunter College. (Choose your own hypothetical here — teacher or student, leading a promised review session or taking a final exam. Whatever.)

    ***

    Seems to me that in this situation, A has “materially interfered with B’s ability to do what it is he chooses to do” in a pretty major way. She’s made him sit around cooling his heels waiting for her to get her own personal problems resolved on four separate occasions, caused him to miss two buses he’d have otherwise been on, and disrupted his work day in a serious way.

    Doesn’t your argument say that A has wronged B, simply by going through her morning routine? Don’t we have to conclude that A “must simply cease what she’s doing,” since “there’s no exercise of freedom on her part that preserves a reasonable degree of liberty” for B? Don’t we have to say that A has a moral obligation to buy a coffee maker, order her stamps online, and trade in her Met membership for a Netflix subscription?

    And what happens when we flip it around? B has done nothing to impede A. There’s no act he could have taken to speed A’s progress, no way in which he was responsible for A’s difficulties. And of course B is just one of dozens of people that A has inconvenienced this morning — and she’ll keep on inconveniencing people every time she goes to the post office or rides the bus.

    So. Has B been wronged? Is A behaving egregiously? And if not, why not?

  27. Swanny said

    Serves B right for frequenting Starbucks and not having the foresight to keep extra stamps on hand.

    I think the argument’s flawed because it’s based on external factor over which A has no control: the wheelchair. Now if it’s just one of those little runabouts that folks use because they’re too lazy to walk, I’d agree. But since I’m assuming that A hasn’t chosen to be in the wheelchair, and this originally seemed to be about chosen behaviors and how they effect yer neighbors in this increasingly homogenous pressure cooker which stifles original thought especially by clamping down on anyone who stands up for a brother’s rights by kicking some bass, I think it’s flawed.

  28. [Tale of woe snipped] Doesn’t your argument say that A has wronged B, simply by going through her morning routine? Don’t we have to conclude that A “must simply cease what she’s doing,” since “there’s no exercise of freedom on her part that preserves a reasonable degree of liberty” for B? . . . B has done nothing to impede A. There’s no act he could have taken to speed A’s progress . . . . So. Has B been wronged? Is A behaving egregiously? And if not, why not?

    It’s a good example, but a little far-fetched.

    One strong argument in favor of accommodations for wheelchair users is that they’re not very intrusive for individual non-users, though they are indeed (particularly on the bus) intrusive to some degree. Because the individual inconveniences are small, the “balancing” test usually works out in favor of accommodations. Your example follows this pattern: each of the individual inconveniences is only a few minutes’ worth. The story is unrealistic in that the same poor guy in a hurry keeps getting nailed by the same wheelchair user every step of his journey, and he never decides to just bag the coffee, or mail the letter after class, or take a cab – even knowing he’s in a hurry and getting later and later with each delay. He is unlucky, but he also contributes to his own problem by not making a reasonable accommodation that would allow him to proceed on his way without inconveniencing the wheelchair user, but instead insisting on pursuing the “reasonable accommodation” (waiting on the wheelchair user time after time) that is the most inconvenient course for himself.

    Even granting that improbable balls-ups like this do happen sometimes, they are statistical outliers. And we all get hammered by statistical flukes of bad luck from time to time. Sometimes your bus is late and you miss your connection to the next one, or you get two busses in a row so crowded they don’t stop, or your elevator stops on every single floor in a 30-story building. It just happens, and the minor delays that are built into the system pile up and pile up until you suffer a serious inconvenience. But that is just the nature of such systems (or, a sign that the system needs more capacity); it’s not a form of discrimination. And it happens to each person only rarely, and the occurrences are distributed more or less fairly; the system is usable, even if not optimum, for most people most of the time, and the burdens are more or less shared. (This leaves aside the question of unequal service to different neighborhoods, which is a separate issue.) Building a system in such a way that some people can never use it at all is clearly discriminatory.

    A more likely version of your story is that person A inconveniences everybody on the bus by about 5 minutes, and 3 other people by 5 minutes each (while herself waiting a total of 20 minutes for access to simple services that everyone else can just walk up and access immediately). I think we’d both agree that’s obviously reasonable. Your original version changes it only by dumping it all on one poor schlemazzel’s head (that would be me, most likely). That, as the libertarians like to say, is “unfortunate, but not unfair” – at least as long as it doesn’t happen all the time. And if it did happen all the time, there’d be a stronger argument for changing the system (which is one reason [aside from pure NIMBYism] why we don’t put all assisted-living halfway houses in the same neighborhood).

  29. digglahhh said

    KTK,

    I think the other side of Brooklynite’s argument might be (and pardon me for hampering on specifics here, your general points are all very good ones) that under the tenets of “reasonable accomodation” could one argue that a disabled person is on the losing side of the “mutual freedom” and “equal degree” scale when that person is taking a leisurely trip to the MOMA during rush hour.

    Could you not argue that, by your standards, it is egregious for the wheelchair user to embark on a leisurely pursuit, inconveniencing people who are performing necessary personal and societal functions (heading to work or school)?

    Baby napping, necessary. Me listening to music, not.

    Me going to work, necessary. Lady looking at art, not.

    Wasn’t that a part of your argument against me?

  30. Is there a version of this argument that keeps the honey-nut umbrella stands off the streets, or at least requires them to contain that awful smell? And can it also shut down the Islamic guys with the incense and aromatic punks, despite their First Amendment rights?

  31. If the example is far-fetched, let’s make it less far-fetched. Move the location of the post office incident to Penn Station. Say Person A knows that her use of the lift is going to pull a postal worker from his station for two four-minute intervals. And say that slows the line enough, at a busy time of the day, that B has to choose between catching an important train and mailing an important letter. That’s plausible, right?

    You said before that the principle at stake is that “no one’s pursuit of their private ends is allowed to materially interfere with another’s similar pursuit.” But in either of my scenarios A does materially interfere with B’s pursuit of his private ends, and you seem to be prepared to say that she’s allowed to do so.

    Even if you reject both of my scenarios, your own scenario says that it’s okay for the woman in the wheelchair to take five or ten minutes each out of the lives of a few dozen other people so that she can go to the museum. But if that’s okay, why is a single kick from a toddler not okay? Why is someone with Tourette’s vocalizing in the movies not okay?

    What is the principle that says that A’s behavior is appropriate, and that a child’s unexpected meltdown in a fancy restaurant isn’t?

  32. Plus, yeah — what Digg said.

  33. I don’t know if anyone’s still reading this. Sorry not to have responded sooner. But the posts above all make important points, and I’m procrastinating on some grad-school work, so it’s suddenly vital to respond to them.

    D:

    Could you not argue that, by your standards, it is egregious for the wheelchair user to embark on a leisurely pursuit, inconveniencing people who are performing necessary personal and societal functions (heading to work or school)? Baby napping, necessary. Me listening to music, not. Me going to work, necessary. Lady looking at art, not. Wasn’t that a part of your argument against me?

    The classic liberal response avoids that problem by refusing to take sides on values. Whether work or leisure is more important is for you to decide for yourself; you are entitled not to be interfered with in your pursuit of either because you are entitled not to be interfered with at all – subject to limitations necessary to respect others’ similar entitlement.

    From that point of view, you’re not entitled to blast music so loud it makes it actually impossible for your neighbor to engage in any normal activity, no matter what that activity is. But, in common sense, we can also recognize that babies’ naps are not just important, they’re vital to them in some real sense, and they can’t easily be re-scheduled. Recognizing that some values are not easily set aside, while others are easily accomodated, makes it easier to decide which way to lean in some cases.

    I once rushed into the 125th St rail station one minute ahead of a train I needed to take. There were half a dozen people in line at the ticket booth. I approached the line and apologetically said something like “Excuse me! I know you’ve all been waiting. I’m very sorry, but my train is arriving right now and I need a ticket. Would you mind if I cut ahead of the line?” Everyone glared at me but nobody said anything; I went up and got a ticket and hauled ass after another abject apology and another round of glares; it didn’t help that almost everyone in line was black and I was the clueless white guy stumbling into Harlem expecting them to accommodate me. It didn’t help also that the reason I was taking the train was merely to go hang with a friend for the weekend – a purely personal indulgence. But nobody else missed their train because of me, and I would have missed mine waiting for them – so it made sense to do it my way. If somebody ahead of me was also in a hurry, or had some sort of emergency, I would have had to wait, because their reason to demand accommodation would have been stronger than mine.

    M:

    Is there a version of this argument that keeps the honey-nut umbrella stands off the streets, or at least requires them to contain that awful smell? And can it also shut down the Islamic guys with the incense and aromatic punks, despite their First Amendment rights?

    Actually, I kind of like the Honey-Nut stands; I’m with you on the incense, though. But at any rate, this is similar to Digglahhh’s issue: are some forms of private behavior just too intrusive, or simply too unimportant, to command deference even though they don’t literally hamper others’ freedom? Can we rank values, or value-driven behavior, on the basis of quality or importance, to demand accommodation when the “infringement of liberty” test has otherwise been met?

    From the classical-liberal perspective, J.S. Mill certainly thought some values were more important than others; he was a dissenter among liberals in that regard. But he also hewed closely to the “public/private” distinction. That you don’t approve of others’ activities is by itself no reason to ban them.

    So we’re back to the “infringement of liberty” standard. The question is whether the smell from these vendors reaches the level of actually interfering with your ordinary performance of reasonable tasks. In some cases, non-physical interference (i.e., interference by means that do not involve direct touching) is possible: loud noises are notoriously disruptive, and so we have noise ordinances; presumably also no one is allowed to follow you around sticking their finger 1/8″ from your face and shouting “I’m not touching you! I’m not touching you!”. Are smells on the street like that? Usually not. They’re not really that bad (it’s not like you can’t do anything else while you’re smelling roasted almonds, and you’re not usually doing anything particularly when you do smell them) plus which, you’re usually exposed to them for only a few seconds. But some exposures are more intrusive: it would be reasonable to keep them away from building doors and windows, or maybe from sidewalk restaurants or outdoor seating areas – places where people linger for long periods. Again, the degree and intensity of the interference, coupled with the ease of accommodation either way, suggests which side should prevail.

    BK:

    Say Person A knows that her use of the lift is going to pull a postal worker from his station for two four-minute intervals. And say that slows the line enough, at a busy time of the day, that B has to choose between catching an important train and mailing an important letter.

    Again referring to practical reality, in practice these things even out. Everybody gets derailed by logistical karma occasionally, and you just suck it up; there’s no practicable way of optimizing every single interaction between every possible pair of individuals in Penn Station that would be less complicated and time-wasting than just letting them all take their chances.

    But, if we’re theoretically optimizing this interaction, then of course the wheelchair user should wait two minutes for the letter-mailer to get out of the way, and then proceed to inconvenience somebody who isn’t in a hurry. To do that, she would need to know that the guy actually was in a hurry, and that there was another person nearby who wasn’t. Assuming these people all do know each other’s circumstances, they can figure out what to do or negotiate it between themselves, and the person who is least inconvenienced should wait and the one who has the most to lose should go first.

    (Recently the FAA started an experimental program of allowing pilots in commercial aircraft with onboard RADAR to talk to each other directly, rather than just with the control tower. The idea was that they could warn each other of impending collisions, because the traffic was so dense the air controllers were getting overwhelmed. What they found instead is that the pilots began to use the system to negotiate their own landing patterns; since they could all see each other on RADAR, they could agree who should be first and who should wait, and if one plane needed to get in earlier, they would just say so and be allowed to, uh, cut in line, or whatever it is that pilots do. Technically, assigning priorities to dozens of aircraft with thousands of passengers all with their own needs and connecting flights to catch is almost a computationally impossible task; in practice, it can be worked out reasonably, but sub-optimally, by assuming everyone’s needs are equal and using some common sense, with room for exceptions.)

    You said before that the principle at stake is that “no one’s pursuit of their private ends is allowed to materially interfere with another’s similar pursuit.” But in either of my scenarios A does materially interfere with B’s pursuit of his private ends, and you seem to be prepared to say that she’s allowed to do so.

    Again, as a rough rule of thumb that’s probably going to be the best solution most of the time, and the occasional instances when somebody really gets put-upon by it can be worked out in a practical way either by simply accepting that as unavoidable bad luck, or by trying to minimize it by informal negotiation and common sense.

    Treating it as a rigorous exercise in value-maximization requires first solving the intractible problem of commensurating values (is this guy’s letter-mailing really more important to him than the extra delay to the woman in the wheelchair is to her? – more important than that delay on the 30th day in a row that someone has claimed to her that her needs weren’t as important as theirs?), then assigning values to each person’s delay or indulgence for each possible solution to the problem, then adding up all those individual outcomes to find the net best one – again taking into account such things as the tendency for inconvenience, intentionally or not, always to accrue to particular groups to the benefit of others. That is the answer – one that utilitarian ethicists have proclaimed since the 19th century. But it’s obviously problematic in a practical way, and in practice we tend to use common-sense approximations. One such approximation is to accommodate those who need the most accommodation until it obviously makes it actually impossible for others to participate – which is a valid objection that could be raised by the letter guy saying something like “I’m sorry but this is really important and I have to get it done right now.”

    Even if you reject both of my scenarios, your own scenario says that it’s okay for the woman in the wheelchair to take five or ten minutes each out of the lives of a few dozen other people so that she can go to the museum. But if that’s okay, why is a single kick from a toddler not okay? Why is someone with Tourette’s vocalizing in the movies not okay?

    Because, most likely, nobody else loses anything important to them in those 10 minutes. Again, if one of them is rushing to catch a train or has to get in and out of the Post Office right this minute, that’s a different matter. But making noise in the movies – given the ordinary and not unreasonable understanding of what it means to “go to the movies” – significantly interferes with others’ ability to participate in the activity at hand (watching a movie, which, as we understand it, implies quiet). And getting physically kicked is a very serious intrusion – one that people resent mightily even if they’re not injured.

    To be sure, much of this is culturally defined: it’s OK to be boisterous and talk or shout at a baseball game, but not at a tennis match, though, to someone from outside the culture, it would be impossible to understand why. There are cultures where talking during the movies is considered part of the experience; there are even particular movies in our culture where it is acceptable (Rocky Horror) and others where it is prohibited, and there are sub-cultures in our culture where it is more common and others where it is less. Famously, there are cultures where close physical contact between strangers is acceptable, and others where it is not. But the fact that it’s cultural (and thus somewhat arbitrary) does not mean the rules aren’t real, or reasonable. We’re making rules for the governance of cultural activities; there’s no reason they shouldn’t reflect the culture. Those rules include no talking (usually) at movies, no shouting in “nice” restaurants, and no kicking other people’s bodies; those might not be the same rules as in other cultures, but it’s not wrong to have them for ours.

    One may say we should change the culture rather than expect some people to accommodate it. In some cases, that’s true. (Spare me the obvious examples of segregation, etc.) And you’re right that it’s very hard to apply the “non-interference with liberty” argument to cultural practices (it’s much easier to apply it to physical security – I think banning kicking is almost a no-brainer, while banning talking in movies is harder). Arguably, asking noisy people to be quiet at movies is as much an interference with their liberty as is their being noisy around others who prefer to be quiet; if “going to the movies” means shouting back and laughing with your friends, then you can’t go to the movies in the normal sense if you’re forced to be quiet. But denying any such cultural expectations essentially means eliminating any expectations for behavior at all: “the right behavior for the circumstances” simply means anything anyone wants to do, anywhere. I think, instead, we can find reasonable and agreed-upon definitions of expected behavior in different circumstances – culturally-determined, but not discriminatory – and ask people to honor them. Movies, nice restaurants, and tennis demand quiet; parks, McDonald’s, and football games do not. Those definitions can change with time and place: movie theaters in black neighborhoods, or during children’s matinees, are more tolerant of talking out.

    What is the principle that says that A’s behavior is appropriate, and that a child’s unexpected meltdown in a fancy restaurant isn’t?

    One important principle is direct material interference with another, by an activity that can be accommodated another way. Another important principle is bodily integrity: kicking or touching are out, even if they don’t cause harm or disruption.

    In the above case, it comes back to this notion of defined cultural expectation that I introduced. (This is similar to D’s notion of “the environment”.) On a bus, everyone has to wait for others to get on and off; it’s not just a cultural expectation, it’s an inescapable part of riding a public bus. Asking everyone to wait a few minutes more once every few trips is a minimal disruption (just as you pointed out to D that turning down his stereo in the afternoon once every few months over a short period is minimal). In a restaurant, nobody is allowed to shout and disrupt the atmosphere, which depends – as culturally, but not trivially, defined – on an expectation of quiet. And I submit that there is no “unexpected” meltdown for most children up to the age of 3 or 4; these things do happen, commonly if not predictably, and any time you leave the house there’s a non-negligible chance that it will happen. Which I think means you have to ensure, when you leave the house, that you only go to places where the cultural expectation for the probability of a “meltdown” is at least as high as the actual probability for your child – i.e., to children’s restaurants or places where noisy behavior is expected. Toddlers simply shouldn’t go to fancy restaurants, just like epileptics shouldn’t drive cars; what’s at stake in the two cases is of course not comparable, but the underlying principle is the same.

  34. Turns out I set a notifier thingy in my browser, so I happened to see this latest response.

    I think a lot of what you say here is wrong, K, but it’s wrong in interesting and important ways. Since we both have less intime venues available to us for this discussion, shall we take it to one of them?

  35. lauredhel said

    For what it’s worth, I’ve been following along, and enjoying the conversation.

    What I couldn’t help noticing with these wheelchair-lift and bus examples – it stands out like a sore thumb – is that the problem could be made non-existent by making the post office and the bus accessible in the first place. Laying dependence onto people with a disability, putting them in the position of having to take up someone’s time for lack of structural forethought isn’t accessibility; it’s begrudging bare-minimum crap. Put in independently-usable ramps or lifts, get kneeling buses, and these problems go away.

  36. digglahhh said

    I think what is being lost here, in my case, is the practical aspect.

    If we are talking about intrusions, cultural considerations, and social practices, I still don’t really see my indiscretion.

    Take the fact that we have to accept that, sometimes, a random confluence of events leads to increased, material inconvenience – and that it is unavoidable that these things will occasionally happen. Now, look at my incident through that lens. I play radio loud every once in a while – probably once every two months. On this occasion, it happened to overlap with baby’s nap time. Can’t that be chalked up to random coincidence that we just have to deal with? I mean, really, my leisurely pursuit interfered with this guy’s baby taking a nap ONCE! I’m sorry, I can’t get past the “GET THE FUCK OVER IT” stage. This isn’t ethics class (although the discussion is surely interesting), this is still, in my mind, an issue of making minor social concessions to live in a culturally rich environment.

    What if I was MAKING music instead of just listening to it. What if I was reviewing the album for an independent website?

    I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this yet, but I still can’t help but wonder if he would have rang my bell at all if I was playing John Mayer instead of KRS.

    Regarding the point that the wheelchair woman feels a boy-who-cried-wolf dynamic because this is the 30th day in a row that somebody claimed his/her needs were more important than her own, isn’t it somewhat analogous that this guy and his wife were childless two years ago and complaining at 10:00 on a Friday?

    Again, the problem here is the history, his request in the context of his previous behavior. What would the reason have been if it wasn’t the sleeping baby?…

  37. lauredhel said

    ” I’m sorry, I can’t get past the “GET THE FUCK OVER IT” stage.”

    Yeah, me too, in spades. But I do not think it means what you think it means.

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