You know who’s the worst?
That guy who runs up to a crowded Red Line train, pushing past the people waiting for passengers to get off, and forces his way through the doors. That guy got me again the other day, cramming himself into the last space on a packed car instead of letting the older woman who’d been waiting far longer have the spot.
Excepting for sociopaths and Yankee fans, nobody really wants to be that guy, right? And yet, somehow, that guy is all over the place, driving around with yesterday’s parking ticket still stuck under his wiper. I’d go so far as to say we’re all that guy, at one time or another.
We do a lot of world-changing work around here — medical and technological breakthroughs, pioneering social science, the New England IPA. And we’ve led the way in social policies, like MassHealth and same-sex marriage, that look out for the well-being and dignity of our fellow people.
So why does it seem like so many of us are being our worst selves when we encounter each other in the real world? We treat every inch in traffic or on the sidewalk with the kind of territorialism associated with NASCAR tracks or international border skirmishes. Even the monks are running some sort of scam.
Some days, living in Greater Boston feels like starring in a minor-key remake of “The Hunger Games,” in which everything is a zero-sum contest and every act of common courtesy is a show of weakness. It’s as if the way we treat each other on the road — or online — has seeped into our face-to-face lives.
“Nasty, brutish, and short” is how Thomas Hobbes described life during wartime in 1651. More than 350 years later, life in what passes for peacetime is the same, but longer.
How did we get to this point? And how do we come back?
At the moment it’s tempting to blame the heat: A few days in the high 90s has a way of turning everything into “Mad Max.” But the truth is that we’re nearly as bad in the cold, fighting over folding chairs propped up in freshly shoveled parking spaces.
For years, surveys and experts have suggested that it’s the Internet changing our IRL behavior. If we treat each other like crap online — and do we ever — then that’s eventually going to bleed over into real life, right?
This isn’t exclusive to Boston, to be sure. But this happens to be where we live, and people here are busy and bored, stressed and depressed, lonely and claustrophobic, sometimes all at once.
Whatever the cause, the contempt with which we treat one another can be breathtaking, as if rudeness were its own reward. How about Paul Sheehan of Dorchester, caught on camera berating a woman in a racist tirade for parking her motorcycle on his street? That’s an extreme example, of course, but the gurgling rage in the video is uncomfortably familiar.
We are hyper-vigilant about the shortcomings of strangers, and blind to our own mistakes.
Confrontations are common, and too rarely end in simple mutual grace. Even the minor indignities seem to add up. Walk around the city for any length of time and you’ll be confronted with two people, side by side on a narrow sidewalk who see you coming but don’t shift to single file. No, rather than inconveniencing themselves, you should play in traffic.
This isn’t about “civility,” that increasingly amorphous political concept that we’re now implored to show even the most unhinged conspiracy theorist. And it’s not, happy as I am to blame him for things, about the current occupant of the White House; this predates him. It’s about decency, dignity, and common courtesy.
Solutions are in short supply, but here’s what I’m going to do: Give people — strangers especially — the benefit of the doubt. That couple that won’t shift on the sidewalk? Maybe they’re so deep in stimulating conversation that they didn’t notice. The guy forcing past you on the platform? Maybe he’s rushing home to a sick child.
And Paul Sheehan? OK, maybe some people are just jerks.Nestor Ramos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @NestorARamos.