(From the July 9, 2015 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)
A few weeks ago I had some time to myself, and I decided to head to the Lake Street Beach on Spring Lake to sit with an iced tea, look at the lake, and read a book. I had only read a few pages when what I thought would be a pleasant and peaceful few hours turned into a cacophony of disregard for civility.
First, two young women came to the beach with their two dogs. I thought to myself, “are dogs allowed on the beach?” But I said nothing and did nothing.
But soon, I could do nothing. I certainly couldn’t read. The women let the dogs off of their leashes. One went into the water and splashed and thrashed about, eventually grabbing the rope that marks the swim area in his maw and trying to swim with it. The other dog, a younger pup, ran all about the sand and shore, yipping noisily.
It was a full-scale land and sea invasion.
The dogs weren’t the only noise. The women added to the chaos by constantly yelling the dogs names to get them to stop their mischief. So I heard “bark!” “yell!” “bark!” “yell!” ad infinitum for at least a half hour. It never occurred to them to use the leashes to literally rein in the canines.
Eventually another man arrived, presumably with the same intention I had—a little solitude on a late afternoon. He, unlike me, chose to state the obvious. He mentioned to the young women that dogs are not allowed on the beach.
Now, this is simply a statement of fact. And he said it calmly, matter-of-factly. But if the barking and yipping was bad before, this effort to bring up the rules in the hope that they would be adhered to only ramped up the noise. The young women responded defensively, accusing the man of being a certain body part, and generally carrying on with the decorum and intelligence of that which their dogs left behind on the beach.
Shortly after they left, it became peaceful for a time. But I had stopped reading my novel. I was thinking of the advantage of cats over dogs. Then, my mind had shifted to ethnographic study of social encounters on a small beach. I was “rewarded” soon with more data.
A couple that had gone kayaking earlier returned to the beach, paddling over the swim rope and through the swim area to do so. I waited. It didn’t take long. The other man, the self-appointed enforcer, pointed out that no boats are allowed in the swim area. I’m a kayaker myself and had assumed this to be true, but watched to see the reaction.
The female kayaker calmly just kept walking her kayak to the truck they had parked near by. Her husband, however, responded with the manner of the dogs, which had just departed—loud and aggressive. He threatened the other man’s manhood, challenged him to a fight, and made some remarks that indicated he had an impressive knowledge of the other man’s lineage. He wasn’t done. After loading his kayak and getting in the truck, he started driving, and then challenged the other man to a fight again. The other man just lay there, and the truck drove away.
I looked down at the novel on my lap. It seemed to be deficient in drama at this point. So I closed it, took a long sip of iced tea, and gazed out at the lake to think.
We have laws, some significant and some minor. Some people don’t know about them, but any lawyer will tell you ignorance of the law is not a defense. So, this other man at the beach just wanted to get the word out, let people know for future reference what the rules were. Some may consider him a nerdy stickler for rules. On the other hand, the rules are there to preserve the rights of others to enjoy the beach.
So the dog owners and the kayakers could have responded by saying they didn’t know about the rule, apologize, and even thank the man for pointing it out. Or they could have at minimum said, well, it was late and there were no kids and few others there so they only did it this one time. That may not be excusable, but it would at least have been more civil and rational.
But in both cases the response to a simple reminder of rules was immediately defensive, and in a visceral way. It’s striking, and it seems to fit a theme in our culture of the favor of individual rights over social responsibility. People don’t view the rules to know how to comply, they look at them to consider how much they can get away with. And when challenged, they fight.
You see this in many other ways. Parking in a handicapped spot without a permit, putting trash in bins clearly marked for recycling, and countless other infractions occur daily. Some might argue that the dog owners and kayakers and others aren’t committing serious crimes and it shouldn’t be worth worry. It may be a stretch to say that such disregard for rules portends the end of time, a descent into lawlessness and anarchy.
But I wondered about that when I should have been reading my novel. Another novel I read some time ago, “No Country for Old Men” by Cormac McCarthy, is about lawlessness. In it, an old and nearly retired sheriff investigates a terrible series of murders out west. Contemplating the unusual degree of evil in the crimes, he comments to his wife on the state of society: “I think it began when folks stopped saying ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’.”
Could be. I maintain that it’s a short road from incivility to crime.