Harvey H. Jackson: A sign of civility
Apr 19, 2012 | 1770 views |  0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
It is popular today in some circles to decry the decline of civility, that bond of courtesy and common decency that keeps us from going at each other’s throats.

I will admit I am occasionally in that circle, for like many of my age and circumstance, I see around me all sorts of things that make me fear for the future.

I agree with my Facebook friend Monica, who posted a general plea to parents to “please do not let your kids loot and open snacks on the food aisle of TJ Maxx,” which is not too much to ask but must be happening or Monica would not be asking.

(Her post reminded me of when I was a teenage bagboy at a local grocery and we would often find banana peelings behind the canned goods where the thief, who treated the produce section like a buffet, had hidden the evidence. I also recalled how the store owner put out an opened box of Argo starch, knowing that if he didn’t, someone would open one or more to satisfy that craving.)

Could it be that those children who regularly pilfered my place of employment back then are the parents or grandparents of the children who “loot and open snacks” today?

I would not be surprised.

And there is the language, which during this political silly-season has gotten more and more corrosive and, well, inappropriate; an Iowa senator may believe the president is “stupid,” but to put it out there on Twitter is, well, not the sort of thing a civil person should do.

I could, of course, go on and on, but I won’t.

Instead, I wish to take off in the other direction and pay tribute to something in our daily lives that proves that we, as a civilization, are not “slouching to Gomorrah” as some would have you believe.

It is time that we acknowledge one of the great examples of civility in which many, if not most of us, participate regularly, almost without thinking — which, after all, is the best way for civility to be.

I give you the four-way stop.

Between my home and my office, depending on which route I take, there are three or four junctions where all traffic must stop before proceeding to wherever the driver wants to go. Most of these are busy intersections at certain times of the day, and often cars are backed up in every direction. Moreover, because of their locations, these “stops” involve all manner of folk — college students who are notoriously impatient, faculty who are notoriously distracted, retirees who are just notorious. And yet, despite impatience, distractions and such, when these drivers arrive at the four-way stop, something happens.

They act civil.

Now, I am certain each of you, dear readers, can recall a time when someone at a four-way stop broke out of order, jumped ahead of the person who arrived there first, and violated the code of conduct that makes the system work. But think back on how many did not. It is the oddity of such an uncivil act that makes it memorable, more than the act itself.

I have not driven in many foreign countries, and my driving done abroad was long, long ago, but I cannot recall any of nations having a four-way stop. England, with its “roundabouts,” comes close; however, the terror of entering that circular maelstrom was eased by the way the English adhered to a give-and-take system that worked to the advantage of all.

At the other end of the scale was Mexico, where the horn was more important than the brake and stop signs were more suggestions than orders.

But here in America, despite our deeply rooted individuality and inclination to interpret things from our own personal perspective, when we pull up to a four-way stop, we follow the rules.

I have paid particular attention to this over the last few weeks. I have watched two cars arrive at approximately the same time and one driver defer to the other without hesitation — men allowing women to proceed has been the norm. I have seen young people motion for an older person to go first. And I have seen two simultaneously arriving drivers stop, start again, enter the intersection at the same time, stop again, laugh, and each gesture for the other to advance — which is about as close to an argument as you get. I have seen us being nice to each other.

So, while we are decrying the lack of civilized behavior in the nation today, while we are dwelling on pilfered candy in the store, inappropriate tweets by politicians and all those other things that leave us wondering what this country is coming to, consider the four-way stop, and maybe you will feel a little better.

I know that I do.

Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is a columnist and editorial writer for The Star and Eminent Scholar in History at Jacksonville State University. E-mail: hjackson@jsu.edu.
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