July 3, 2019

Showing Consideration for One's Neighbors

4th of July fireworks

You know how the MAGA folks are often accused of trying to take the United States "back" to a time that never existed outside of the re-runs of Leave It To Beaver some of us remember watching as young children? I think there's a great deal of truth to that accusation; however, I've decided to start this post by doing something similar. I'd like you to imagine a time in our remote past before empathy for others was considered a weakness and long before social media outrage was the favorite way to pass time. It was a magical (and possibly fictional) time in which Americans would periodically come together to help each other out. But most of all, it was characterized by having a basic level of respect and consideration for one another.

Clearly, living in any sort of modern civilization entails a few compromises. No one individual will always get his or her way. Whatever freedoms we may have are necessarily limited by the presence of other people. My freedom, for example, does not include the right to break into your house and steal whatever I want. The freedom of the individual is balanced against the welfare of his or her neighbors and the larger state. These limits are necessary and even desirable because complete freedom would entail the freedom to harm others. If my free act is to hurt you, your rights are jeopardized. Because of that, we all have an interest in surrendering some of our freedom to insure that the social order is maintained.

Suppose for a second that you are a devout Christian, doing your best to raise your children in a world which you perceive as suffering from sin. You do your best to be tolerant of other viewpoints, and you are not one to push your religion on others. Although you are firmly convinced that those who do not accept your preferred gods are doomed to burn for eternity, you do not go around telling them about their likely fate. In fact, you are reasonably well liked and get along with almost everyone.

Shortly after I move in next door to you, you discover that I occasionally blast Satanic heavy metal on weekend nights until 2:00 AM. It is loud enough that it keeps your family awake. I don't do it often. In fact, I probably only do it 10-15 nights a year. But when I'm at it, you can hear my stereo well past midnight. As if that wasn't bad enough, it is not uncommon for you to find garbage in your yard the next morning in the form of empty beer cans. You don't know for sure that it was me, but you aren't sure who else would do it and it coincides with the nights on which I am blasting music.

You try to be tolerant. You'd prefer to avoid conflict, and you try to resist passing judgment. But no matter how much you might like to "turn the other cheek," one conclusion seems inescapable: I am being inconsiderate. Forget the lyrical content of my music and assume that I might not be the one littering your yard. By blasting my music late at night, I am disrupting your sleep. You could buy earplugs, but that really isn't the point. When I blast my music that late, I am clearly being inconsiderate of you and your family.

Are you with me so far? Okay, now I am going to change the scenario a tiny bit. Everything is the same as I just described with one difference: it is not just me blasting my stereo like this; many other neighbors do exactly the same thing on exactly the same nights. It is as if you've had the misfortune of moving your family into a Twilight Zone episode where several neighbors conspire to celebrate some obscure holidays by blasting music throughout the night 10-15 nights a year. This compounds your predicament. Even if you could convince me to stop, you'd then need to move on to several other houses to try your luck. Am I still being inconsiderate? Of course! It now appears that several of your neighbors are being inconsiderate as well. The new circumstance I've added (i.e., that several people in your neighborhood are doing the same thing) does not change this. You are now in a minority, but that doesn't mean that you deserve to be treated like this.

Pretty obvious where this is heading, isn't it? I am not talking about anybody blasting Satanic metal in their neighborhood; I am talking about fireworks. I am the one trying to sleep, and my Southern Baptist neighbors are the ones preventing that from happening. I am the one kept me awake until 2:00 AM, and I am the one finding garbage in my yard the next morning (usually in the form of spent fireworks).

Does this change anything I said before about this behavior being inconsiderate? I don't think so. The residential fireworks usually start around 6:00 PM and regularly go until 2:00 AM. Since Mississippi has few if any restrictions on the sale of fireworks, we are talking about the powerful variety that shake the windows. It sounds like dynamite, and I suspect that's not far from what it is. I'm not asking anybody not to celebrate. I'm not even asking anybody not to use fireworks, although I did finally reach the point where I would support a ban on residential fireworks since it has become clear that my neighbors are not willing to use them responsibility. What I am really asking for, though, is some consideration. I'm not any more interested in being kept up all night by your fireworks than you would be in being kept up all night by my Satanic metal.

An early version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2007. It was revised and expanded in 2019.