"Can I get?"
I was thinking, the other day, about Friends, and its role in the collapse of current morality. It arrived on our shores when I was about fourteen years old. It brought, to my particular cold, foggy and isolated corner of the country, visions of smart, wilful, witty twenty-somethings having the times of their lives in the greatest city of the world. We waited - cool and non-cool groups alike – avidly for the new episodes, crowding into the television room at school to catch "The One with the Giant Poking Device". I expect that, subconsciously, we all yearned to be like them – to have our apartments, to do what we wanted, to be without limits. To be free.
It is this latter that was causing me pause the other day. Watching Friends again, I realised that to a kooky man and woman, they are all selfish, practically amoral creatures who care only for the preservation of their bourgeois lives. Yes, we are meant to laugh at them – but their freedom was so tempting it was presented as a valid and useful life choice. (Mary Poppins has a lot to answer for, too – "Feed the birds! Don't invest your tuppence in the bank!" Quite frankly it's probably because of her that the economy is in such turmoil.) But back to those glossy twenty-somethings.
It's all to do with the subtleties of linguistics. I was brought up to say in shops, "May I have?" Friends brought the ubiquitous "Can I get?" Already the burden of power is shifted onto the asker. He or she is stating their potency, their ability to get – to actively take what they want. "Can I get a muffin?" implies the answer is already yes. The person giving it to you has abrogated their function. With "May I have," the power lies with the askee. They have the power to say no. ("Get", incidentally, has further connotations of "begetting" – but that's by the by.)
I suppose what I am getting at is these little erosions of civility have a ripple effect. I see it every day. When I was small we were told to say hello to people behind counters, to smile and be polite to everybody. We would walk to the shops, talk to the assistants, say please and thankyou, and toddle back with our comics and crisps. And that's how you learn that you are part of a society, that it isn't possible to go in and "get" what you want. Now we go into shops and are faced with machines that beep at you and tell you there's an "unexpected item in the bagging area." This only fuels rage in my experience. We buy things online, not from a real person. We listen to personal (and yes, it's there in the "personal") stereo players on the train rather than look at each other, pretending that we exist only in a musical bubble of our own making. We stare glued to moving collections of pixels that variously chop each other, eat each other and punch each other, even though we are in our thirties and forties and ought really to be reading the papers and engaging with what is around us.
How can we expect civility, if everything we do discourages it? How can we expect violence to be contained, if we don't give people the mechanisms to deal with it? Those shiny, "empowered" friends, on their sofa in Central Perk (and there you go again - "Perk", as if they somehow deserved to sit in that café), are symptomatic – emblematic – of a selfish and materialistic society. And it does trickle down, through language, through symbols, through aspirations.
What is the solution? I only have one. Disavow the supermarket machines. Buy things you need from shops. And most of all – smile.