The Case For The Interventionist Reader

Leaving people and things alone has long seemed the best way to go, and you could even say that it has worked for me. There is an infinite variety of dress, talk and behaviour to be witnessed out there and it would be arrogant to assume that one could influence or change things you don’t like, except perhaps through setting an example which others might choose to follow. These two points of view form a kind of subtle incongruence, despite appearances, and a deal of thought on this subject has revealed that it is quite easy to be inconsistent in what you think and how you practise it when you encounter the less palatable features of the strangers with whom we must spend time in public spaces.

“The Great Unwashed” was coined by William Makepeace Thackeray or Edmund Burke or Henry Peter Brougham, and Sir Walter Scott had some role in popularising the term, so the parentage of this phrase is uncertain, but that doesn’t really matter for it is a good phrase. An excellent phrase in fact, despite the overtone of superiority inherent in its use. Perhaps it is such a pleasure to describe the mass of ordinary folk in this way because of its superiority – for it is often employed when the speaker or writer is being less then complimentary about his or her fellow humans. The armpit of humanity is a similarly satisfying collection of words calculated to convey a similar meaning, but nobody famous seems to have ever said it, which surprises me. I’m sure I didn’t make it up.

Anyway, long experience has taught me to let people go. That aberrant behaviour can be tolerated, as long as it’s not too loud and no-one is actually being physically threatened. The site of my most frequent encounters with strangers has been on Sydney’s trains, and the experiences (and memories of them) are perhaps sharpened by that space being an enclosed one where it is not always possible to simply move. It is always worse if someone is being unpleasant and the train is crowded, which makes movement even more restricted, although it has been my approach to travel outside peak hour where possible in an effort to reduce exposure to some of the more unpleasant traits we see in others.

So, starting early and finishing early at work mean sharing the carriage with fewer people. And reading a book, quietly, discreetly, in an area chosen because it is but lightly populated has been a common tactic, as well as listening to music – classical of course – in an attempt to smother or block out or replace the inane sounds sometimes heard when people are commuting. I no longer listen to music. Not since I’ve travelled with Laetitia. It would be rude to keep doing that. It must be admitted that in my time travelling alone some quite antisocial behaviours probably didn’t even register as I was in “nothin’ to see here” mode.

But now I do notice and things do register. People talk loudly about pointless things, both with real physical companions alongside them (or sometimes a couple of seats away, which makes no sense to me), and it is often louder than it really need to be, and some people talk every day for entertainment reasons and you can’t help but overhear and it is always empty and devoid of interest. There are also people who insist on making phone calls and share the contents of the call with the rest of the members of the carriage as if we care that they are five minutes late and will be in the office in five minutes or that they will try to make time to see a colleague, if they possibly can, as if the big important business figures are travelling to work on the train. There are people who play music too loudly from their phone or other portable device – many smart-mouthed kids, and I was a kid once but I never would have done this sort of thing if those devices had been around – and the reason that you can play music so loudly through your device has never been adequately explained to me. And there are those who have bought the latest iPad, presumably for several hundred dollars, and the main use they get out of it is to play Angry Birds or those other games where you must make a row of letters or connect shapes or some similar very simple game and it makes you wonder if they are getting full value for the technology at all. And the sound, again, is too high. The sound it makes when you press a button is often turned: 1) on; and 2) way up – so the sound of someone writing a trivial text message, which will almost certainly contain “LOL”, because you need to use that in every message apparently, can be very loud and very distracting and make you want to close your book in frustration.

Of course there is really bad behaviour: violence and graffiti and other more criminal acts which would really interrupt your train of thought as you wade languorously through Proust, and those things should be objectively seen as undesirable or even criminal and the idea isn’t to just ignore them and hope they will go away. It is true – and it’s a somewhat shameful admission – that my approach has a lot of the ignore and hope it will go away about it.

Laetitia’s method is different. She will ask a person with a loud device to turn it down please. She will tell school kids they are being too loud if they are and they often respond by turning down the volume on their conversation or their music (or both). Of course, people routinely refuse to be told and can become quite angry in some cases, but the result is often a good one. You wouldn’t do this sort of thing if a group of neo-Nazis got on the train and started misbehaving and you wouldn’t intervene if a person is clearly impaired by mental illness or drug use or some other sort of extenuating circumstance. And when I say you I don’t mean me: I still want a quiet life where I sit down and read and pretend that I’m not surrounded by strangers who are doing hateful things like reading on a Kindle or listening to the crappest music you ever heard, risking the health of their eardrums in the process, through their iPods and sharing their objectionable musical taste with everyone else. People with the sound turned up too far are never listening to Mozart, and the same goes for those cars that pull up next to you at the lights with the stereo “pumping” – it is never music you would actually playing yourself. Not for enjoyment anyway. Ever.

The thinking part of all of this is about what it means to let people go and what it means to intervene. On one hand, I like to think that live and let live is a good rule of thumb and that I have a deep feeling for the ordinary person. I also like to think I stick up for the underdog. And on the other hand it seems authoritarian to insist that people behave and tell them when they have transgressed. But perhaps the two positions should really be reversed. Because when you examine the motivation of attempting to change the behaviour of strangers it is a kindly idea: that you can see something which can be corrected and a friendly word can hopefully make the difference and the person who has been told will benefit by the experience. It’s not throwing your weight around. It’s trying to help. It’s like advising a friend to stop reading one of the Fifty Shades books and telling them that there are better books, which are actually written well and still have graphic sex, but also contain proper emotional truth and insights that you won’t get from that kind of book. I have always maintained that people reading anything is a good thing – it is better to read than to not – but Laetitia disagrees. In my view anything by Hemingway has to be better than pretty much anything else by almost anyone else. There is a hierarchy. There is good and bad, but it’s all worth reading. All of it. Comics and Twilight and all of it. The other view is that some reading is actually bad for you, and it makes me uncomfortable, but I know that my choice is not to read certain things because they will not be enjoyable to my taste and it would seem like a waste of time to try them.

(This became about books, which I thought it would, but not quite in this way.)

Countering this idea that intervening is the human response of a caring person, is the idea that a non-interventionist approach is actually quite a patrician stance which seeks to keep people in their places and attempts to maintain the differences between people. For if I choose not to tell school kids to keep it down then they keep their bad manners then they may not grow up to be the refined aesthete I congratulate myself for being. (Although, many would disagree with this view of me, I’m sure.) This view allows me to go on reading EM Forster and Christopher Isherwood and other people to keep reading Harry Potter and never realise what they are missing out on.

Or am I the one missing out? I very much doubt it, but you could argue that.

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