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The importance of four-way stops

During a visit with a group of thoughtful people this past week, one woman observed that just when she is driven to despair by the state of our society, she thinks of the continued success of four-way stops. 

Yes, four-way stops. 

I realized right away that four-way stops make me feel good, too. 

It is easy to think society is getting more brutal by the day. 

The success of the four-way stop is a sign that things haven't completely fallen apart. 

Upper Midwesterners might think that we're more polite than everybody else. In fact, a four-way stop in a prairie town is likely to result in stalemate as four drivers wave at each other to go first. 

But I'll never forget when I was driving in rush hour traffic in downtown Fresno, Calif., a pretty rough city by most measures, when the power went out. 

The stoplights went blank. And what happened, chaos? 

No, thousands of drivers politely allowed others to go ahead before they took their turn. The masses even allowed left turns across four lanes of traffic when they were collectively left to make up the rules on their own. 

Traffic didn't move as fast as when the lights worked, but for that half-hour, at least, it was a wonder to watch people who didn't know each other co-operate for the general good. 

Civility. It is one of my favorite words.

Civility is a basic building block of society, but it needs to be cultivated, encouraged, taught and maintained from an early age. 

Civility can't be enforced. Once it is enforced, civility is reduced to obedience, a less adult concept. 

So, I view with mixed feelings the crusades to pass laws to prevent bullying in schools. 

Couldn't we just make it a priority to teach basic decency? Aren't lessons in decency something the community used to provide for children? A good scolding when needed? A good lesson in basic good behavior with no legal consequences? 

In the "Remember When" section of our local paper a couple of weeks ago it was reported that 100 years ago an area 14-year-old fired a rifle at a man walking by on the road "just to see how fast he could make him run."

The bullet went through the man's shoulder, but he wasn't seriously wounded. 

The case was dropped because the man refused to press charges. 

One can imagine the 14-year-old realized what he had done, felt remorse and, possibly for the first time in his life, understood the power he had to make others miserable. 

The passerby, meanwhile, saw that the boy learned his lesson and felt that no further punishment was necessary. 

That's how it used to work. And that's how it should work. 

There will always be hardened criminals. They need to be dealt with so they aren't a threat. 

But what kind of society have we become when matters of basic decency, like not tormenting your peers at school, have to be dealt with by the legal system? 

Somebody's not doing their job, and that somebody is all of us. 

A few years ago, I bought groceries in Grand Forks on Halloween. Ahead of me in line at the checkout were five young ruffians carrying 15 dozen eggs. 

The manager came over and said, "I am not selling you those eggs." He knew very well what those kids intended to do with them and like a good old-time storekeeper, he wasn't going to profit at the expense of his townspeople. 

What did those kids do? 

Cited their rights!

"You can't stop us from buying eggs just because we're young," the despicable little lawyers argued. "It is our legal right!"

Sadly, the storekeeper gave in. I still kick myself for not standing up for him right there, although you never know what drugs those kids were on and they seemed inclined to resort to force. 

When simple incivility becomes a matter to be dealt with by sheriffs, policemen, counselors and administrators, something has gone wrong. Our social fabric has started to fray.

It is the job of all of us to restore it, even if it means that we occasionally turn into 1950s-era scolds. 

First, adults need to act civil themselves. Sadly, we can't always take that for granted. 

Secondly, adults who understand adulthood need to firmly, even angrily insist upon civil behavior when they observe a breach of the social contract. 

Sometimes, calling for a new law is just passing the buck.

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