By Dr Kirsty Sedgman
To be together is an act of faith. Imagine reading a book in a steamed-up coffee shop, gazing at the flow of faces outside the window. Think about the press of a crowd in a football stadium, the pleasure of joining in with a wave and getting it exactly in sync with everyone else. About dancing in a cramped hot room or a giant festival field, everyone covered in glitter and someone else’s sweat on your skin. About the comfortable hubbub of a restaurant or the silence of a library; those who stream around us at the train-station, or who sit next to us in hushed pleasure at the theatre, or who manoeuvre their shopping cart around ours – oh, a wonky wheel! No, please, after you.
Imagine being together, out there in the world. It’s a quietly radical thought.
I say radical because, in order to be out in the world with other people, we need to have faith in other people: faith that other people will abide by the same rules as ourselves. Rules of manners, civility, propriety, respect; of morals, ethics, and law. These are just some of the big words we’ve come up with, over the centuries, to describe the necessary boundaries for our successful coexistence.
To be together is, like Blanche in Streetcar, to depend on the kindness of strangers; or if not their kindness, then at least their general lack of antagonism. This begins at the very basic level – the hope that other people, by and large, will not set out to harm us. That our bus to work will be free from explosives. That our classrooms and religious congregations won’t be disrupted by someone wielding an automatic weapon. That no-one will cough on us and spread a deadly virus.
Less spectacular than these Hollywoodesque acts of cruelty, though, are the small acts of disturbance to which we submit others – or are ourselves submitted – every single day. Here I’m talking firstly about the minor irritations that come from being together in public: about the open-mouthed chomper, the man-spreader, the perfume-overuser, the loud and constant sniff sniff sniff.
But I’m also talking about the accumulating violence of microaggressions that being-together-in-public can bring. About the dangerous surveillance of bodies whom society has systematically marginalised. The disproportionate policing of those identities and behaviours. The judgments about who does and who does not belong. Our experience of being together in the world differs vastly depending on who we are – or who we are seen to be.
As a specialist in theatre audiences, I’ve spent my career asking what it means to ‘be together’ in public space. Who decides the rules? Who benefits from those rules, and who loses out? Who gets to define what counts as reasonable, and how do those with alternative definitions (of what’s acceptable vs. unacceptable, appropriate vs. inappropriate) get marked out as unreasonable?
A couple of years ago I started answering these questions through a study of online guides to ‘theatre etiquette’, the recent deluge of blog posts and articles arguing that theatre audiences are getting increasingly badly behaved – the result of which was my book, The Reasonable Audience. I found that while every etiquette advocate firmly believed that audiences are getting more and more selfish and bad-mannered, in need of ‘retraining’ in better spectatorship, the precise location of that line between good and bad behaviour differed wildly from person to person.
When it came to mobile phones, for instance, some people said that obviously putting them on silent was okay; others said absolutely not, obviously they had to be turned off entirely. Some people said don’t eat or drink anything in the auditorium; others said that quiet snacks are fine – otherwise you “may as well tape everyone’s mouths shut”. Some people welcomed the demise of the dress code, telling their readers to wear whatever they feel comfortable in – even “rock up in flip flops, if you like”. Meanwhile, others said specifically that “there is no place for flip flops in the theatre”, and that you should buy an outfit that cost “at least as much as the price of your ticket”.
If we pay attention, we can see these same discourses of reasonableness playing out in every aspect of public life – from debates about whether or not it’s acceptable to eat on buses, to irritation at children being noisy on aeroplanes, to disabled people getting shamed for sitting down on park benches while taking their one governmentally-mandated walk a day.
You can also see reasonableness fermenting online: in every Twitter storm, every Facebook spat, every online article’s comments section, in every Reddit Real Relationships or AITA (Am I The Asshole?) post. Whether the subject is as big as socialism or as banal as sourdough bread – any native of the internet should be familiar with the furious disagreement even the most throwaway online thought can provoke.
And what I’ve learned from all this is that everybody – yes, even you – believes that their own opinions are obviously reasonable. Our ideas about right or wrong, appropriate or inappropriate, acceptable or unacceptable, are obviously common sense. After all, it’s surely just a case of manners and respect – about learning not to be selfish, about being considerate of others… Right?
The thing is, though, that manners and respect are not neutral. There’s no such thing as a single, reasonable viewpoint. Common sense is actually not that common at all. These things vary from person to person, they land differently on different bodies and different subjectivities, and are absolutely bound up in relations of power. Because as critical race and disability studies scholars have pointed out for decades, it tends to be working-class people, young people, and people of colour (especially where those identities overlap) who get disproportionately policed and subjected to surveillance – even if their behaviour is exactly the same as the older rich white person next to them.
Understanding this is to pay attention to the inequities of being together, out there in the world. Who can walk down the street holding hands and pass unnoticed, and who cannot? Who wheels the shopping trolley aside reflexively, and who stands still? Who disproportionately gets served in that coffee-shop, and who do we expect will be the one to serve?
We’re trying to co-exist in a fundamentally racist, sexist, ableist, classist society – one that’s deliberately working to elevate some existences over others. Our shared social spaces have been built to be shared only by some of us. We are trying to be together in a world designed to pull us apart.
Right now, of course, we can’t be together – or not most of us, anyway, or not in the ways we’re used to. Right now, here in the UK, our government is trying to move us back to business as usual. But that’s not what we need. Instead of going back to ‘normal’, now’s our chance to ask what a new normal might look like. The first step toward that new normal is to learn to interrogate the voice of reasonableness inside ourselves – the voice that tells us our own ideas about how the world should be are common sense, objectively correct, while others’ lived experiences are obviously wrong. It starts by asking why we sometimes feel we have the right to pass judgment on others as selfish, disrespectful, rude – and whose disadvantage that might entrench. It begins by understanding that returning to the status quo means some of us get further ahead, while others are left behind.
Now is our chance to be together better. Let’s not bottle it, okay?