On a busy tube-train platform last week, I witnessed a familiar sight. As a train pulled in, commuters jostled into position to climb onboard and get to work. As usual the doors opened to reveal a mass of bodies with little room to breathe; elbows in armpits, heads in hairdos, point-blank faces ignoring each other. And, as usual, people renounced their humanity and denied that of others as they fought for a place on the train.
There was no way everyone was going to fit on but one passenger – a fellow Londoner, citizen and presumably sentient being – thought otherwise. Shoving through rows of travellers, he lunged forward, grabbed onto a pole inside the carriage and stood at a right angle to the doors, leaning out of the train as conductors once did from London buses in images found on old postcards. As the doors slid to close, he pulled his body into the carriage and onto those inside it. A woman, incredulous and crushed, let out a shriek and the train pulled away obliviously. But if this act had been committed beyond the behavioural bubble of the tube it might surely be classed as assault – or insanity.
This is just one of many everyday case studies showing how we often dehumanise people when we expect not to re-encounter them, or – worse – when we know there is no realistic chance of reply or redress. When commuters hurl themselves onto others, they risk a moment’s embarrassment safe in the knowledge that they will never again meet their witnesses. When drivers cut up pedestrians, they know they can drive on: windows up, impunity intact. And when neighbours boost the volume and keep others from sleep, they fail to recognise those residents as fellow people who may answer back. When I once confronted my noisy neighbours I was simply told “This is London.” I thought about returning with a doorstep lecture on Aristotle, on Richard Sennett, on civility and the city, but luckily they were spared the pleasure.
Our capacity to downgrade our behaviour when we expect to never truly face those who feel its consequences is truly worrying. And if we fail to act decently when those we affect are present, how can we expect to do the right thing by those we’ll never meet – future generations, for example, or those on the other side of the world? Questions such as these – of proximity and politics, decency and distance – have long engaged philosophers and political scientists; recently David Runciman has re-examined them in his brilliant book Politics: Ideas in Profile. And they’re worth pondering.
As our representatives are pressured to react to more distant crises, we should look at our own individual behaviour – which, after all, is far easier to control – and ask how humanity can continue to flourish if we fail to stick to it in our everyday lives.
Alice Bloch is an associate producer for Monocle 24.