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Kid playing with drill in a restaurant symbolic of society
dennis Wyatt web
Dennis Wyatt

Seconds after we walked into an older Stanislaus County drive-in on Saturday where soft serve cones are still called a frosty, we were unable to carry on a conversation due to a sudden drilling noise.

I looked to my right. There on his knees was a boy of perhaps 5 years of age pressing what looked like a toy drill against the wall.

We started to discuss what we wanted to order when the high pitched drilling noise started again. Another look - this time longer - and I was stunned to realize the kid had a real drill minus the drill bit with a battery pack plugged in the bottom. He was struggling somewhat to hold the drill but every 10 seconds or so he was able to steady it against the wall and press the button to make the annoying drilling sound. This went on four or five times before I realized the only other people in the dining area was an older couple who were both nursing bottles of beer that wasn't on the menu.

Needless to say we exited without ordering.

It was bizarre but a perfect illustration of where we are today in America.

We are a land that views standards of conduct around other people as a quaint concept that fuddy-duddies had back in the Victorian era. I get that the Victorian era wasn't always what it was portrayed to be but our seemingly complete abandonment of manners - as well as deteriorating standards of personal conduct - goes a long way toward explaining how we seem to be reverting back to the jungle as every passing day reveals more boorish, demeaning, brutal, and repugnant behavior whether it consists of men in power acting as if they answer to no one or teen girls texting obscene photos, making vulgar comments, and tossing about obscenities that would make a hardcore sailor blush.

What did we expect when allowing people to do "their thing" regardless started to subordinate the concept of civilization? No one is saying snuff out individualism. It's just that you can't have law and order if everyone assumes that all that matters in the world is themselves. That would be okay if they lived on a deserted island, but they don't. There are 323 million Americans and counting living on 3.937 million square miles. Do the math. Add in the fact most of us live in cities, you should realize we live in close proximity to a lot of other people who we interact with either passively or otherwise.

Arguably our biggest problem today is the tendency for people to think all rights are absolute whether it is speech, property, guns or otherwise. There has to be a temperament - or a balancing - of rights when they come into conflict.

How can speech be free if others are allowed to silence it through violence or shouting it down just because they disagree with it?

The danger of believing one is the center of the universe emboldens a wide variety of anti-social behavior from sexual predators to leering, theft, driving in a manner that imperils others, wanton waste of shared resources such as water, serenading your neighbors for three blocks with heavy metal music cranked up to vibrate windows, or to disrupt the lives of others while you allow your charge - one may assume grandson - play with a drill in a restaurant while you nonchalantly nurse a beer oblivious to anyone else.

The reason social norms designed for people to live in close proximity with each other appear to be going to the wayside could be attributed to two fairly recent developments.

1). People no longer feeling a sense of personal shame; and 2). the wild scale embracement of pushing the envelope of human behavior that has accelerated as more and more social interaction is no longer face to face.

And to be clear, there is a difference between personal shame and public shaming. A code of behavior that has been impressed upon you by parents and others when interacting in society is the basis of personal shame and the fear thereof that prompts one to conduct themselves in a civilized manner. Public shaming is driven by gang mentality.

It is wrong, for example, for society to shame anyone for being gay but at the same time there should be personal shame that prevents an individual from making all of their interactions with others about their sexuality. That doesn't mean they have to be closeted. We're not talking holding hands and kissing in public but behavior that arguably shouldn't be shared in the public square whether you are gay, straight or whatever.

If we didn't have stop signs that were expected to be followed, right-of-way rules, speed limits, and common courtesy our streets would be a non-stop destruction derby.

Our failure to adhere to standards of any sort, and not showing common courtesy when interacting with people is making day-to-day life, however, seem like a 24/7 destruction derby.

While rules for driving and engaging in traffic can be fairly precise given there is relatively limited behavior and movements being regulated, how we should function in a civilized society is a much bigger challenge. Some behaviors lend themselves to rigid near absolutes while most doesn't. That is where the vastly underused concept of empathy comes into play.

There's little doubt the couple nursing beers wanted the kid to occupy himself with a power tool so they could be left alone.

If they had an inkling of empathy for others they would have realized that the behavior they were encouraging in a 5-year-old was inappropriate for a restaurant.

This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt and does not necessarily represent the opinion of Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.