Editor’s Note: Sara Stewart is a film and culture writer who lives in western Pennsylvania. The views expressed here are solely the author’s own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Lately, I’ve been nostalgic for the Quiet Car.
In a world filled with hustle and noise, Amtrak’s dedicated space for non-talkers, readers and introverts was a deeply satisfying breath of fresh air, and I always felt a certain kinship with my fellow quiet-seeking passengers. Almost always, though, there’d be somebody who didn’t get the message, and — despite the signs and the announcements — yammered blithely on their phone while the rest of us exchanged neighborly side-eyes.
Often, I was willing to be the person who sidled over to remind them, as politely as possible, that this was a communal minimal-noise space. After I left New York City, I lived vicariously through like-minded bossy friends (you know who you are, fellow journos) who recounted Quiet Car adventures on social media.
Though fairly low-stakes in the grand scheme of things, the Quiet Car was a valuable metaphor for the way humans can create beauty in community. I find conflict anxiety-inducing, but I was also interested in standing up for our collective rights. And isn’t this how a functioning civilization works? We learn to exist, together, and to be willing to engage in debate about what defines our shared space, about how to respect the rules and how to honor our shared humanity.
And hey, if you’re a loud talker? No worries, the majority of the train is reserved just for you! There’s room for everyone here. Or there used to be.
You wouldn’t find me sticking my neck out on the Quiet Car today. This spring has seen a high-profile spate of deadly violence against citizens who’ve made minor overtures of one sort or another to neighbors or complete strangers. Just this week, a man was taken into custody on charges of fatally shooting five people. The killings allegedly took place after the suspect was asked to stop firing his gun outside near a neighbor’s home to avoid waking a child.
The entirety of our culture now seems increasingly like the Wild West, where the answer to “could you please stop doing that?” or even just “could you help me?” might turn out to be a bullet.
The headlines may make it feel like a sudden phenomenon, but this latest collapse of shared humanity has been happening incrementally over many years, with predictably bloody consequences. And I’m not trying to minimize the body count by invoking the Quiet Car. On the contrary, I think we can use the metrics of how people treat one another in such mundane situations as a bellwether for the state and sanity of the nation.
I’m a longtime student of the school of good manners. (Manners being different from the elitist practice of etiquette, as discussed on a recent episode of the podcast “We Can Do Hard Things.”) In evolutionary biologist Amy Alkon’s book “Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck,” she explains one foundational principle I like a lot.
She says that society “can’t turn back the clock to a world where we all live in a small village and everybody knows everybody and the blacksmith. What we can do is take steps to re-create some of the constraints and benefits of the small groupings we evolved to live in… We could dial back a lot of the ME FIRST!/SCREW YOU! meanness permeating our society if we do just three things: Stand up to the rude. Expose the rude. Treat strangers like neighbors.”
Alkon acknowledges that it’s inherently uncomfortable for most people, but counters that learning to call out rudeness is an exercise in “choosing to live connected instead of alienated. Choosing to be a neighbor instead of a bystander.”
I’d add a corollary to her 2014 writing, which is that calling out rudeness in person is the goal; social-media shaming, while effective, can spiral out of control way more quickly than the shamer intended. And in a moment when the US surgeon general is sounding the alarm about how isolated and disconnected Americans are, thinking about the choices to be connected to each other — or not — take on national significance.
For most of my adult life, I subscribed to this philosophy. I always believed our society, although a complete mess in many ways, was capable of weathering prickly negotiations between people about how we should collectively conduct ourselves.
One memory that rings particularly chilling to me right now is the time my husband and I asked our then-next-door neighbors to stop shooting at songbirds in the backyard. What happened next? Well, they stopped. That evening, one of them even surprised us by coming by to apologize.
But when the response to asking someone not to shoot an AR-15 at 11 at night, near other people’s houses, while a baby is sleeping, might be mass murder? I’m not sure how we move forward from that. And the torrent of events isn’t slowing: literally, as I am writing these words, I’ve learned of more: A fatal shooting in Colorado following an altercation between two Tesla owners at an electric-vehicle charging station. It was just a week ago when one neighbor allegedly killed another who was using a leaf blower.
Then there were the people who weren’t even braving what they thought might be an argument: Ralph Yarl, shot in Missouri for knocking on the wrong door. Two cheerleaders in Texas, shot after mistaking a stranger’s car for their own. Kaylin Gillis, fatally shot when the car she was riding in made a wrong turn into an upstate New York driveway. Six-year-old Kinsley White, shot along with her parents in North Carolina after her basketball rolled into a neighbor’s yard. Waldes Thomas Jr. and Diamond Darville, teenagers shot at in Florida after trying to deliver Instacart groceries to the wrong address.
One of the effects of this heartbreaking series of events will be to further quash any citizen instinct to reach out when in need of basic assistance, to put forth a hand in attempted connection with another person, or to speak up for others. If you think this is an exaggeration, consider another recent headline: the slaying of pastor Anthony Watts, a Good Samaritan in Mississippi.
None of this is an accident. A number of well-documented, decades-long campaigns have created a populace that’s stewing in anger and comfortable dehumanizing other people. And armed to the teeth.
First and foremost, of course, it’s the relentless fetishization of guns. Not just through lobbyist money but by embedding the iconography of weapons deeply into a certain (extremist White and Christian) vision of America.
Consider the 2021 text message recently made public from Tucker Carlson to a producer, in which he confesses to watching a video of Trump supporters assaulting a protester, hoping the mob would escalate things further: “I found myself rooting for the mob against the man, hoping they’d hit him harder, kill him. I really wanted them to hurt the kid. I could taste it.” Soon after, “an alarm went off” in his brain, Carlson claimed, telling his producer he realized he was “becoming something” he didn’t “want to be.” Think about how many people watched Carlson’s more public-facing vitriol on their screens before his show was pulled off the air.
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Things got exponentially worse during the pandemic — recall the anti-mask public tantrums and the air rage incidents — but America’s descent into what Paul Krugman has called a cult of selfishness can be traced much further back. Psychiatrist Jean Kim writes of a longtime “toxic narcissism” at the center of the American mythos, “the fantasy of the empowered self-made man, the one who is free to say and do whatever they want, the epitome of a particular American dream, unfettered individualism, beholden to no one.” Except, of course, that’s a fantasy — being beholden to no one is not how human societies work.
There was a time when I believed in what Alkon’s book espouses, that our cherished freedom carries with it the responsibility “to fill in what’s missing in the vast strangerhoods we’re now living in by turning toward other people, especially strangers, and effectively saying, ‘Hi, I’m your fellow human. How can I reduce your pain and suffering today?’”
Right now, to be honest, I don’t feel confident that person wouldn’t answer my question with a gun.
Correction: An earlier version of this essay incorrectly characterized the alleged shooter in a recent incident in Illinois.