Public space and the Golden Rule

By Jill Segger
April 14, 2011

Public and private spaces impose differing obligations. That statement might seem so obvious as to be otiose. But many people seem to be unaware that the sharing of space necessitates the exercise of a restraint which manifests and nourishes the mutuality without which any concept of society - big or otherwise - is impoverished.

Loud phone conversations on trains and buses display complete indifference to the amenity of fellow passengers. To continue a phone conversation whilst being served in a shop or bank diminishes the humanity of the person facing you. Such interchanges should also be understood as not for public consumption. The details of interactions between friends, spouses, parents or workmates belong to the individuals who are conversing. The casual, and frequently entirely avoidable, broadcasting of at least one side of the conversation is to some degree, a breach of trust.

The incident which prompted me to put together some thoughts on this topic occurred just the other day. A toddler, completely ignored by the group of young mothers at a nearby table, was ricochetting noisily around a coffee-shop to the danger of his own person and the mixed anxiety and irritation of the rest of us. After re-distributing the newspapers provided for customers from their rack to the floor, he sat on them, removed his wellies and threw one in the air. It landed on our table, spraying us both with coffee and breaking a milk jug.

My partner was on his feet in a trice. I had just time to mouth “careful” at him before he was at the young mothers' table. His remonstrance was very firm, though neither abusive nor discourteous and was delivered in measured tones. However, the response was indignant until it became apparent to the group of mothers that the rest of the clientèle was backing the rebuke. They gathered up their children and flounced out with loud complaints on the lines of “some people seem to think they've bought the place.”

Just as governments must adjudicate between conflicting interests, individuals have to recognise that not everyone can plough their own furrow in every situation. All of us have to compromise or curb our desires to some extent in the company of others if we are all to live well together. This does not always sit well with a culture which often confuses lack of restraint with freedom.

But the 'Golden Rule' which Jesus offered to his followers: “Do to others as you would have them do to you” requires us to exercise a basic respect for commonality. The absence of that respect is nowhere more apparent than in the public spaces of our shared lives where we should strive to exercise the self-discipline which is best learned in the private and forgiving space of intimate relationships.

When we occupy shared space, whether it be that of supermarkets, streets or cafés, the pleasure and utility of others in that space is worthy of as much respect and consideration as that which we expect for ourselves. Where that fails, there are troubling questions to be asked about our understanding of the interdependence and reciprocity which underpin the coherence of society.

If we are indifferent to the well-being of the man or woman next to us on a train or in a restaurant, how much care will we take over the wider issues of justice and equality for those who are not sharing our immediate surroundings?


© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: You can follow Jill on Twitter at:

Keywords:Society | big society
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