A much-shared video shows a woman carrying a baby being denied a seat by first-class train passengers. An elderly lady had her bag on a seat; the mother asked her to move; an argument ensued and the other passengers joined in.
What was striking about the exchange was the absence of any humane or civic lines of reasoning – as in, here is an empty seat, here is a woman with a baby who needs to sit in it.
Instead, the dispute pitted various formal rules and procedures against one another. Some passengers insisted on the santity of first-class: the woman didn’t have a first-class ticket, therefore no rights to the seat. Other passengers said that they heard the train’s first class had been ‘declassified’, which means the woman now did have a right to sit in the seat. Finally, the mother herself noted that it was a ‘priority seat’, reserved for groups such as mothers with young children.
The question of right or wrong – and of our obligations towards one another – appears as a competing series of procedural rules. People on a train are as bubbles, surrounded by a forcefield, and their relations are only made possible by the pecking orders handed down from above. These procedures are not something we have made, apparently – there is no intuitive sense of everyday ethics – but something handed down, written on the train walls or announced over the microphones.
To be ‘civic’ today is often to care disproportionately about the correct enforcement of the rules. It is not the case that everyone is just sitting there and ignoring each other: they are policing, watching, comparing each other’s behaviour with that specified. Even if it doesn’t affect you then there is an impulse to survey and insist that procedures are correctly followed.
This can mean that the majority of a train carriage (on a train to Brighton!) can shout at a woman with a baby to leave what had been an empty seat. The public sphere can be a hostile place; you do not know how people will behave. Mothers with young children was one of those groups intuitively helped out, assisted, but now any ‘special treatment’ is only condoned if specified. You do not have to give up your seat unless you are in a specially marked ‘priority seat’: only in these seats do babies have a (quasi-legal) ‘priority’ over others.
The video ends when a man offers to give up his seat for the mother. Such acts of assistance are no longer the enacting of general civic assumptions and normal forms of comportment. Instead it is strangely touching, personal; an act of personal kindness, one-to-one. It is a moment that breaks through the proceduralism that has become our hollow civic virtue.