Friday, August 06, 2010

Public gatherings test our civility - and we get a pass

I always enjoy the annual Island MusicFest, and had my usual good time grooving to the tunes at the Courtenay festival last month.
But it’s the people-watching that’s the best part of a music festival. Pack several thousand people of all ages and backgrounds into a fairground for three days and nights, and things are guaranteed to get interesting.
A whole lot of people in tight quarters is a true test of our civility. Yes, there are rules at MusicFest, and quite a number of security guards and police on hand to try to enforce them.
But when that many people gather in one place, what really determines how things will go comes down to people’s willingness to be tolerant and respectful of each other. And the MusicFest crowd always delivers.
If you’ve been to a music festival, you’ll know all about blanket rules, and the strict but unwritten code that governs the sea of blankets stretched out in front of the main stage.
Blanket rules probably don’t occupy even a few seconds of your thoughts in your non-festival life. But at a music festival, they’re a major preoccupation. When the sun’s shining and the music’s fine, as it was last month, you’ll spend most of your day on a blanket on the grass in front of one stage or another.
So your blanket really weighs on your mind.
You think about how to set it up in the morning in front of the main stage so that you won’t need to check on it again until that night’s concert gets started. You think about the sea of blankets all around you, and how to strike a path through them that avoids the trampling of other people’s blankets. You contemplate the space that your blanket takes up, and whether it could truly fit unobtrusively into that gap in front of the older couple comfortably positioned on their own blanket, or if it would be rude to even try.
Trivial stuff, sure. But the thing about blanket rules is that they work even though there are no actual rules. That they do is a small but heartening testament to the basic decency of human beings.
Camping at MusicFest is another major test of civility. With no reservation system and no designated spots, it’s essentially a free-for-all once you’ve made it into the fairgrounds and a supreme patience-tester just to get to that point.
The painfully slow check-in for campers is the first place civility is severely tested, but I didn’t see anyone lose it in the long, long hours of waiting to get into the campsite.
Once in, there’s simply no predicting what kind of neighbours you’ll get. Too bad for you if you inadvertently end up in the site beside a horde of drunk teenagers  with a dozen coolers of beer loaded up for the weekend. (Thanks for the “Quiet Area” campground this year, MusicFest organizers! Loved it.)
Even if you’ve got the nicest camping neighbours in the world, you’re still going to be in each other’s laps for days on end.
You’re going to hear that nice young couple having a nasty fight, because their tent is right outside your trailer door. You’re going to get a ball bounced off your head from the kids playing soccer two campsites over. You’re going to be in the middle of life being lived out loud, and that includes those enormous snores coming from the guy  in the tent less than a metre away from yours.
You’re going to line up for food, and for the porta-potty. Your bag is going to be searched regularly, and your wrist band examined at every opportunity. You’re going to be cheek-to-jowl with the young, the old, the beautiful, the weird and the vaguely creepy, and you might even end up dancing with one of them.
In other words, you and thousands of other festival goers will endure a series of inconveniences that you probably have little tolerance for in your regular life. But this time you’re just going to go with the flow.
To see it all unfold that way - well, it restores my faith. Rules and laws are all well and good, but it’s the unspoken agreements we make to tolerate each other that actually keep our world rolling along. How we behave when stuffed into tight and potentially unpleasant circumstance speaks to the essence of civility.
Group hug, people. And to all those volunteers and security staff who make MusicFest and all those other big public events enjoyable for the rest of us by riding herd on the handful of party animals who don’t get it: Thank you.

No comments: