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The Silencer

The Silencer

April 12, 2006

The decline of Western civilization proceeds apace. One shudders to imagine life in decades hence. A case in point: People now use cell phones in research libraries.

Wandering the stacks, they babble away in a blithe and full-throated manner -– conversing, not with their imaginary friends (as did the occasional library-haunting weirdo of yesteryear) but rather with someone who is evidently named “Dude,” and who might, for all one knows, be roaming elsewhere in the building: an audible menace to all serious thought and scholarly endeavor.

This situation is intolerable. It must not continue. I have given this matter long consideration, and can offer a simple and elegant solution: These people ought to be shot.

I am no extremist, please understand; no gun nut in a rural compound; no wild-eyed advocate of freelance vigilantism. Just a temperate and long-suffering citizen who has heard quite enough about the affairs of Dude for one lifetime.

Max Weber pointed out that one of the hallmarks of modernity is that the state retains a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. I have no disagreement with that principle. It just seems like time for it to be applied in a new way.

The people who do the shooting ought to be suitably trained, tested, and certified. (Their accuracy as marksmen would be demonstrated beyond all doubt.) A poster at the entrance to the building would give fair warning that no cell-phone conversations are permitted beyond a certain clearly marked boundary line. The consequence of violating this rule could be illustrated with artwork, perhaps involving some easily recognized cartoon character.

Shooting with actual bullets might be excessive. If the budget permits, some kind of taser gun would be appropriate. Failing that, buckshot would probably do the trick.

Admittedly, a rational person could object to my plan. “Wouldn’t shooting cell-phone users in research libraries be counterproductive?” you might well ask. “Wouldn’t that actually make the library more noisy?”

A fair point. Yes, it would. But not for long....

I began pursuing this line of thought under two inspirations. One of them came from reading the conservative British essayist Theodore Dalrymple, who frequently contributes to The New Criterion. A selection of his work appeared last year in Our Culture, What’s Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses, published by Ivan R. Dee. There is a grand tradition of reactionary cultural criticism. Regarding comprehensive misanthropy as a justified inference from the available evidence about mankind, it turns disgust into a systematic world view. Dalrymple often seems like the most skilled practitioner of this approach now writing in the English language. Many rant; few have his gift for it.

So, in part, I wanted to pay homage. At the same time, Dalrymple comes to mind for a reason. My policy suggestions are the result of long experience and growing frustration. In other words, I want to shoot those people. I really, really do.

Which is not, of course, a socially acceptable emotion. Acting on it is discouraged by law. One understands this, of course; hence the imagined compromise, in which trained personnel would execute the punishment.

Being forced to listen to one side of a manifestly inane conversation is now a routine part of public life. It is tolerable on the street -- but not, somehow, in a library; and in one mostly full of academic tomes maybe least of all. What’s worse, the rot is spreading.

Professors routinely complain about the presence of cell phones in the classroom. But the culpability is not so one-sided as all that.

A friend reports attending a session of a major scholarly conference -- a panel on some grave topic in military history, I think. From the audience came the distinctive noise of a cell phone ringing.

No surprise there, of course. But then its owner pulled out the phone, answered it, and began a conversation.

Here, a line has been crossed. Some implicit rule of conduct (normally unstated, simply because nobody should have to spell it out) has been violated. A fissure in civility has appeared -- and the responsible party deserves to be swallowed up in the abyss so opened.

At very least, that person has lost all reasonable claim to immunity from having a powerful blast of electricity delivered to his or her system by somebody carrying a stun gun and a permit.

Not likely, though. Without being too much a determinist about this, it does seem as if technology, in making certain kinds of behavior possible, also makes it inescapable. That, in turn, results in deep changes in attitude and personality.

A sense of entitlement trumps the capacity for embarrassment. By that point, there’s no going back.

Or is there? For many years now, I’ve been a fan of The Civilizing Process by the late Norbert Elias, a great study in historical sociology that was first published in 1939. In it, Elias worked out an account of how behavior changed in Europe between the middle ages and the early 20th century. He analyzed the evidence from diaries, letters, and etiquette books to see how the rules of everyday conduct developed over time. Things considered acceptable and normal in one century would be regarded with disgust and outrage in another.

Elias found that such changes were not a matter of fashion or whim. Nor were they trivial. The rules governing routine behavior were tied to two long-term processes underway. One was the growing complexity and interdependence of economic life. The other was the concentration of military power in the hands of the state. (We take it for granted now that the army or police are -- or at least should be -- accountable to the political authorities. But this is actually a fairly recent development in human history.)

As these tendencies were taking shape on the macro level, the little rules of daily life were changing accordingly. To keep things running more or less smoothly, each person was expected to internalize certain rules. Things that once happened without anyone noticing them came under increasing scrutiny.

“Do not spit into the basin when you wash your hands,” a medieval text admonished, “but beside it.” In 1714, a French handbook on etiquette suggested that you not spit unless absolutely necessary. In that case, be discreet enough to put your foot on it. (Also: “Do not spit so far that you have to look for the saliva to put your foot on it.”) By 1859, a British author noted that spitting was not just disgusting “but very bad for the health” -- so you should never do it, period.

A similar change could be traced in discussions of flatulence. In 1530, the very learned Erasmus of Rotterdam noted: “If it can be purged without noise that is best. But it is better that it be emitted without much noise than that it be held back.” If necessary, he said, you should cough simultaneously to avoid embarrassment. (My wife, who gave me The Civilizing Process as a birthday present some years back, would probably rather I not cite Erasmus so much.) By 1729, a French rulebook warned that the release of gas “is very impolite ... either from above or from below, even if it is done without noise.”

Over the course of two or three hundred years, then, the expectation grew that each individual would practice more and more self-regulation. Social life, as Elias puts it, came to resemble a modern highway: “Every individual is himself regulating his behavior with the utmost exactitude in accordance with the necessities of this network. The chief danger that people here represent for others results from someone in this bustle losing his self-control.”

It is the analysis of table manners that most closely anticipates the present cell-phone problem. Originally, the use of knives and forks was restricted to very elite members of the aristocracy. At first, even some of them found it pretentious and affected. (Here, one thinks of the portable phones of the 1980s, which were nearly as big as your head, and seemed mainly to be used by hotshot lawyers and stockbrokers trying to broadcast how very important they were.)

As the use of eating utensils spread, various rules emerged. “Do not clean your teeth with your knife,” the advice books often warned. That is a pretty good indication that lots of people were cleaning their teeth with their knives, since you don’t have to forbid something nobody actually does.

But Elias also notes something even more interesting. The knife, while a useful tool at the dinner table, was also potentially a dangerous instrument of aggression. The very sight of it may have provoked a fear that it would inspire hostility -- or that, if you mishandled it, you might carelessly hurt somebody else.

So the pressure grew discouraging people from using knives at the dinner table for any but a very few functions. If a piece of food can be cut with the edge of a fork (the rule goes) you should do so. By no means stab a hunk of steak with your knife and eat it. Etc.

“There is a tendency that slowly permeates civilized society, from top to bottom,” writes Elias, “to restrict the use of the knife ... and wherever possible not to use it at all.”

The cell phone, then, is a little like a fart, and a lot like a knife. In the most optimistic scenario, people will learn to control their behavior over time. Civility will be restored. It should take about two centuries. I figure three, tops.

 

 

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