Old Fashioned Morality in Public

I just got back from a late night dinner at a cafe I sometimes visit (Kramer Books on Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C.), where I was trying to have a post-midnight meal and read after a very long day of promoting free trade. I was seated in an area where you get stuck right next to other tables and it’s hard not to overhear what the other diners are saying, as they are right next to you. The first couple at the table next to mine was easy to ignore. They chattered away without saying anything. (I do recall “I just love mushrooms,” which may have been about the most memorable thing they said.) The next couple, however, was the usual young-DC-powerbroker-wannabe couple. But in this case, the lady (well, actually, not “the lady”) managed to make roughly every fifth word a vulgarity, sometimes a very colorful and graphically descriptive vulgarity, spoken loudly and for public effect. It did rather disrupt my ability to read and understand my book on economic history. (I don’t mind other people speaking — it’s a restaurant, not a library, but this was not mere private conversation.)

I paid the bill, gathered my things, and pondered whether to say anything. I decided to say something. I addressed her and told her that she had the most vulgar and filthy mouth I had been exposed to in probably at least a year and that she should be ashamed that she imposed that on other people. Her boyfriend or date or whatever was mortified and just stared at his plate. She said she had not asked to be seated there, and I responded that she should have been seated outside, beside the trash bins, and that she was just another no-one-other-than-me-matters-kind-of-selfish-person that Washington breeds in abundance. I then left, as her boyfriend continued to stare at his plate.

I’m not sure whether I should have simply left without a comment (it was not easy to ignore her chatter, despite my efforts), or done what I did. But I hope, at least, that she will think twice before imposing that kind of language on others in an otherwise civilized establishment. (I gave a tongue-lashing some years back to a young man who was detailling, in very loud speech at a cafe, every detail of last night’s sexual encounter; I told him that I don’t go to cafes to be involunarily exposed to descriptions of the orgasms of other people. If he wanted to spend time in a locker room, he should do so and tell his stories there, not force them on people who are reading or talking and trying to enjoy their drinks or food.)

I wonder sometimes whether my behavior means I’m just getting older, or whether I am providing a public benefit for others who would prefer not to be bombarded with such vulgarity and coarseness.

37 Responses to “Old Fashioned Morality in Public”

  1. Personally, I think that Smith’s system works. But for it to work it has to be symmetric. Show approbation when someone achieves something worthy of emulation. Show disapprobation when someone is being disgusting. As long as it is merely a communication and not an assault, I see no problem.

  2. Tom G. Palmer

    Maybe. That, of course, is my fear. But I think most people would be offended by a stream of such vulgarity (scatological, sexual, anatomical, etc.) spoken very loudly two feet away from them as they were trying to eat, read, or hold a civil conversation with another person. And I don’t know that twice in twelve years makes me much of a bitter old lady.

  3. Lord Blister

    Gresham’s Law of the modern agora: bad manners drive out good. One reason, among several, why I’m not a godless libertarian. I look forward to repeal of the 1st Amendment and vigorous enforcement of public decency laws.

  4. Tom G. Palmer

    I think that there are other ways to deal with such matters without using violence. (And you can be a God-fearing libertarian, if you wish. You would certainly not be the only one.)

    I also don’t see this “law” in practice (overall, most conversations are polite, and I’m not aware of reliable evidence that free speech leads to more coarse speech. Moreover, whereas Gresham’s law has a mechanism whereby “bad money drives out good” (when they are required to be exchanged at a set ratio that does not correspond to the market valuations), I don’t see any mechanism of causation whereby coarse manners would drive out the good.

  5. Joshua Thompson

    I have to side against you on this one. It seems to me that inside a crowded, big-city cafe, after midnight, on a weekend, is not the time or place to be demanding about the speech content of my table neighbors.

    I think there are probably two generational differences. First, your generation is more easily offended by graphic speech. I assume it must have been extremely graphic for you to deem it necessary to confront her. Nevertheless, in that context, they should be able to speak freely without fear of reprisal. (Obviously, if at any time the staff/owner asks them to leave or quiet down, they have crossed the line.)

    Second, your generation is more likely to confront persons who are more offensive. I think this is a good thing. Even in situations that call for it, I would likely walk away (e.g. a similar situation in the aforementioned library).

    So yes, you are getting older, and yes, at times, you are providing a public benefit. Our disagreement is only over when the former is dominating the latter.

  6. Tom G. Palmer

    Hmmmmmmm…… Actually, I think that my parents’ generation would have been more likely to say something. Few people my age would say anything; they would just suffer in silence.

    Reasonable people can differ, and it’s hard to describe to someone who wasn’t there how vulgar the discussion was. Moreover, different people would have different thresholds. It got above mine, as it involved a variety of bodily functions the description or invocation of which are best not imposed on others who don’t wish to be a part of the discussion, but which were said, not sotto voce, but quite loudly. Vulgar speech is a part of life, and it may even has its proper place when it helps to draw attention to things people should notice. But I had had my fill of it. It was, at the very least, an extraordinarily selfish imposition on others. Anyway, your remarks are interesting, if only because I disagree that people in my age group would be more likely than people in yours (I don’t know how old you are, but let’s assume about 20) to complain in that way. Anyway, thanks for your thoughts!

  7. Tom,

    I think you were certainly within your rights, as well as within the acceptable norms, to express your displeasure. And, you might have been generating a positive externality.

    But, it seems to me that your lecturing may have been so strident as to be easily dismissed, after you left, as the ravings of a silly prude.

    It might be more effective to merely say something like “Perhaps you didn’t realize how easily it was for others to hear you, and if you toned down the volume or the vulgarity you might disturb fewer people.”

    Something like that seems more likely to actually change somebody’s behavior.

  8. Because most people “resign” in front of such behaviors, such behaviors become more and more common. It’s not being “conservative” to say the truth about someone’s bad manners. It’s the only responsible way to “enforce”, in a liberal way, decent, polite, respectful behaviors without which civilization fades away.

  9. Russell Hanneken

    You should check out Stephen Cox’s “Word Watch” column in the latest issue of Liberty (April 2009). Cox complains that people are “violating their own privacy” by forcing other people to listen to their private conversations. He also makes the point that “If you are so unmindful of other people that you don’t care whether you not only are sharing your private conversations with them but are actually forcing them to listen, you are one horrible freakin’ candidate for a libertarian society.”

  10. I am glad you said something. I would have, though I can imagine it would have been hard for me to do so, as I almost always mind my own business. However, it sounds like the discussion, not only in its nature but also in its audibility, went far beyond the threshold of any reasonable person. Then again this is DC.

    Joshua T – there is a fine line between “demanding about the speech” calling someone out for being rude. It doesn’t sound like Tom was listening in; it sounds like he was doing his best to ignore.

    And it has little to do with age.

  11. Lane Conaway

    Dr. Palmer,

    I think you were well within your rights. To me, part of the libertarian “live an let live mindset” involves being conscious of where our property rights end and others’ begin. Even in a cafe, you’re essentially renting a portion of the restaurant. Within that portion, you have a reasonable expectation of comfort, privacy, etc, and should be allowed to say what you want. But when (in close quarters) you’re using loud and vulgar speech that obviously is being overheard…well I think the patron is no more entitled to do so then a home owner is entitled to allow his sewage to run into his neighbor’s yard.

    That aside, kudos for one of the better worded tongue lashings I’ve read recently.

  12. […] Palmer wouldn’t stand for it: I paid the bill, gathered my things, and pondered whether to say anything. I decided to say something. I addressed her and told her that she had the most vulgar and filthy mouth I had been exposed to in probably at least a year and that she should be ashamed that she imposed that on other people. Her boyfriend or date or whatever was mortified and just stared at his plate. She said she had not asked to be seated there, and I responded that she should have been seated outside, beside the trash bins, and that she was just another no-one-other-than-me-matters-kind-of-selfish-person that Washington breeds in abundance. I then left, as her boyfriend continued to stare at his plate. […]

  13. Tom, you were most certainly within your rights. However, most people would simply be inhibited to say anything.

    Being a non-smoker I regularly get very very angry if somebody lights up a zigarette (or even a pipe) in the non-smoking section of a restaurant. Usually, I just look at them in a not very friendly manner, but sometimes I tell them that this is a non-smoking section. The latter nearly always helps.

  14. I’m glad that you said something. I thought the story was going to end with her boyfriend standing up and shouting, “YOU CANT SAY THAT TO MY GIRLFRIEND!” I guess he thought the same.

    The people in this area are becoming more and more disconnected and less personal. Yesterday I saw a woman crying in my neighborhood. Everyone stared, but no one said anything. I was the only one who asked if she was alright.

    Cursing is something that many people do, but it’s something that sounds disgusting when you actually do it in the presence of others. Sorry your post-midnight meal got ruined, or did it?

  15. If you don’t speak up for your rights, you will eventually lose them. And the loud talkers rights do end where your ears begin. I’ve called the cops on a neighbor who loudly curses and carries on in his backyard while on the phone. There is stuff I really don’t want to know about him that, thanks to his one sided conversations at all hours, I now know. Others I know do the public shaming of taking pictures of offenders and posting them on the web. More than often I just do the nasty look in the direction of the offender, which typically makes the offender huffy and defensive.

  16. I have no quarrel with your decision to reprimand the young woman for her behavior, but I do take issue with your demand that stories of a sexual nature be relegated to the locker room. I would prefer not to hear of others’ sexcapades while I’m changing for my workout.

    This morning on the bus, two young women sat next to me and held forth for nearly half an hour on the limitations and failings of their workplace. I debated for awhile as to whether or not to let them know that not only were they talking quite loudly, but the content of their conversation made it quite obvious where they were employed, and their vocabulary – just shy of valley girl, with constant “like” and “that totally sucks!” for emphasis – did not reflect well on them. I kept my mouth shut, although in retrospect I should have said something about their volume – they were clearly audible the entire length of the bus, over the noise of the engine and the other passengers.

    Public courtesy. Hard to find, some mornings.

  17. I’m not a believer in countering rudeness with rudeness. And, yes, it’s quite rude to go up to a complete stranger and lecture her on appropriate behavior. Not to mention ineffective.

    I agree with Gil that it would have been better to offer a polite, “You may not realize other people can hear your conversation, and it was uncomfortably personal.” Or, even better, you should have mentioned something to the waitress or manager while you were eating your meal, so they could deal with it. It’s their restaurant and their call.

    As much fun as it is to go off on people who offend us, I really, really doubt it does anything other than make things worse.

  18. Having lived in several cities in the country, I can say the one thing I notice and despise most about D.C. is the fact that people feel it is their given right to butt into other people’s business. That said, I think you were wrong to confront her. You were in a public place. Whether it is a library or a nightclub doesn’t matter. You don’t make the rules there and it isn’t your job to enforce them.

  19. It seriously doubt Dr. Palmer “[went] off” on her, as that’s not his character. A good and honest reprimand is what she needed, and what she got. Too many people believe that no one else has a right to criticize the behavior of others, and it’s likely she’s never before been so addressed. It could prove to be a good wake up call to her to realize that, in fact, there are other people in the universe beside herself. Clearly her parents did not take it upon themselves to raise her with common manners, and it used to be in such situations that society would step in and say, “no, you shouldn’t do that.” Post modernism now decries such actions as oh so horrendously judgmental, which is a shame.

    Part of the responsibility that comes with a free society is that people use their voice to achieve with words the decent society that they are (rightfully) unwilling to use force for.

  20. @ Brian Garst: It’s all too easy to blame parents for the bad behavior of someone.

    People here (Belgium, The Netherlands,…) are afraid to say something. There is a habit among certain groups of young people (15-25 years old) to play music on their cell phone with the speakers on so everyone can hear it. Usually it is on the bus or in the train. It is extremely irritating. But no one says a thing. Even the bus drivers don’t. Everyone is afraid of being beaten up or stabbed by these people. Last year, someone was beaten to death by a few young adults when he asked them to be more quiet on the bus. There are almost daily reports in the newspaper or on TV of violence against people from the bus company or just random people and usually involves things like people who don’t want to show their tickets, get aggressive and beat up some controllers from the bus company etc. It is almost every time for the most stupid and common things. So what happens… nothing. On the one hand people keep being extremely impolite, irritating,… and on the other hand, people like me who are afraid of saying something and hardly ever take the bus or train without my iPod and some headphones.

  21. There is not much of a problem, I think. Everybody in this story had the right to act as they actually acted. The lady (or, maybe, not “the lady”. However, this does not really matter here) had the right to speak whatever she wished, and Tom had the right to express his opinion on what the lady/not lady said, so far as he was not violent or offensive (and knowing Tom I am pretty sure he was not).

    First, the lady/not lady was in a private bar (or am I wrong?), and if somebody could righteously prohibit her to speak out anything at all was the owner of the place or any person designated (any employee) by him/her. Vulgarity can be the subject of moral judgement, but by no means does it represent anything that can be used for punishing or prosecuting the person.

    Second, since the lady/not lady was speaking loudly and everybody around could overhear her, she had no right to object to anybody expressing opinion on what she said. Tom did what he did and what he was entitled to do.

    As for reacting or not reacting, well, you know, it depends on the mood. I can imagine various reactions: just sitting calmly, standing up and walking out, calling waiter or manager and complaining, tongue-lashing, or even calling the police, but I do not understand, why any of these shall be the matter of concern. I would do just what I would decide to do at the moment. Since none of the listed actions involve violence or offence, any such action would be legitimate and would just depend on the mood I would be in then.

    So what is the problem? Things are just as simple as this.

  22. Interesting anecdote, Tom. Two thoughts, both in a devil’s advocate way:

    First, it IS possible that if many people heard this woman and no one but you complained, there is more voyeuristic interest in her speech than you might have thought. That in itself is further evidence of the degradation of our culture, granted…

    Second, what would you have said if the boyfriend, instead of cowering had stood up and said, “My apologies to you for our table’s conversation ruining your dinner, as your public admonition has now ruined ours. However, if this was your feeling, why did you not speak up to us immediately and softly rather than endure it for many minutes and then speak up so publicly?”

    I raise this question because I almost never speak up myself–you are the more brave between us–and often when I mentally converse with myself about not speaking up I argue, “If you were going to speak up and complain, isn’t it too late? If it really bothered you, you should have said something earlier.”

  23. Avid Dash

    I’m in my early 30’s and I think vulgarity is an absolute sign of ineloquence. Thank you for talking a stand Mr. Palmer! Giving that woman a proper tongue-lashing is just as much your right as it was her right to babble on in the first place, but maybe she was never taught good manners.

    I encounter swearing in the workplace on a daily basis and I think it stems from laziness and lack of respect for not only the audience, but the speaker him or herself.

  24. I love that you did that. I wish I had the guts to say something like that to people. I generally only inflict my potty mouth on people who pay to hear me do so. j/k 😉

  25. Irfan Khawaja

    This is an interesting case. My reaction: I think the issue is not quite generational, but temperamental. For one thing, I would distinguish the foul-mouthed lady from the sexcapade-describing guy. The latter strikes me as offensive, but not the former. Sexcapade-descriptions are offensive because they flout the privacy of a third party. But for those of us who grew up speaking just the way that the lady did–I’m from New Jersey–her behavior seems unexceptional. Everybody I knew talked like that, and so did I. So do I.

    If there’s anything to object to, perhaps it’s the volume, but that has nothing to do with vulgarity. I’m as offended by high volume vulgarity as I was at the lady I heard across an otherwise quiet restaurant declaiming loudly (but without vulgarity) about her recent laser eye surgery. Well, I told her what she could do with her laser eye surgery. When I got in the car, I mean.

  26. I would have to have been a fly on the wall to have a good judgment of the situation, however the line about how she should have been sat outside next to the trash cans is absolutely priceless.

    By the way, behaviour on public transport in DC, at least the metro, seems much more civilized than that I have encountered on trains and metro systems in Europe.

  27. Thank you for speaking up. Insisting that other people behave in civilized fashion is an important part of freedom.

    “Libertarians” who suppose that for you to object was unlibertarian have no understanding of the difference between force and free speech… and thus of libertarianism.

  28. Dr. Palmer:

    I have no idea who you are as I just wandered onto this post, but I love you. You are my hero. If I’d witnessed the above it would’ve made my day, my week, possibly my year. Thank-you.

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