On the carriage of quiet

SO. I’m going to try to make a habit of posting a blog every Sunday morning. This is to get in the habit of writing, to pursue some kind of intellectual practice on the weekend, and to try to articulate and defend my thinking about a bunch of stuff. And also because half-formed thoughts in a OneNote folder aren’t any good – they need to be written up and chucked on a blog.

This week, I was going to write a review of The Red Pill. But I haven’t watched it yet (I know it’s going to be boring), and this thing broke out on Facebook yesterday, so I want to write about it instead. I also just want to throw the caveat out there: I won’t always write about gender troubles, it’s just they seem particularly salient at the moment.

I’m probably going to get slammed for this one, because if there’s something that progressive people hate it’s men criticising mothers for anything. So let me say from the outset: this is not a criticism of mothers generally, and I don’t write it under the illusion that motherhood is some easy walk in the park. So let me take you through why I can’t stand noise in the quiet carriage on a train, and then try and offer something of a solution (an unrealistic one, sure, but this is the internet so I can do whatever I want).

What happened?

Yesterday I hopped on a train to the Central Coast, heading up for a birthday party. This is 75 minute train ride, and I usually get on one of the ‘quiet carriages’ on NSW trains. These carriages are designated quiet zones, where noise is kept to a minimum for people who want to read/think/sleep in peace. This was an 8 carriage train, four of which are quiet, four of which are go-to-town noisy.

A whole bunch of people got on the quiet carriage a few minutes before the train left, talking loudly all the way up the stairs, into the seats in front of me, and bringing noisy children who were yelling, talking, raving on, and climbing all through the carriage. Nobody was upset, nobody spoke to these people, these people were in good spirits. It was just hugely rude.

I posted a bitchy Facebook status about it (because that’s how I deal with situations I don’t like, rather than confronting them directly), and a bunch of people agreed with me, and a bunch of people basically told me to chill out and check my privilege.

So I want to take the time to more fully explain my reasoning and thinking about this scenario. It’s also helped moderate my own attitude a bit, because the more you write about something the more you think ‘god, did I really care about it two and a half thousand words?’.

So here we go.

Public Courtesy

One of the benefits of Facebook is that it can sometimes act as a social ‘flipped classroom’. People do their homework on Facebook – finding out the minutiae of my life, seeing the things I’ve been up to – and then the conversation in person can extend and enrich the analysis of these events. This was the case at the party I was at last night: people were happy to engage in a conversation about the relative merits of quiet carriages, the critiques I took on Facey, and the conditions of travel in this spaces.

Part of the confusion may come from different expectations in public spaces. For instance, as I spoke with my friend Cathy, she recounted the time she and a friend had been shooshed by someone for having a conversation on a quiet carriage. They had piled onto the train without realising (and this definitely can be confusing for some when boarding the quiet carriages at the centre of the train. They aren’t as easy to distinguish as ‘the first and last carriage’).

Another person pointed out that they weren’t ‘silent’ carriages, and I agree. Shooshing people for having a quiet conversation is just pedantic and rude.

The standard is set out by the driver as the train departs. He explains the number of quiet carriages, asks that phones be turned to silent, that conversations be kept quiet or to a ‘minimum’ (whatever that means), and that music not be so loud that it disturbs other passengers. This is a fairly comprehensive outline of the courtesy expected in a quiet carriage.

My aunty Tess and I were once getting a train up to the Central Coast. We knew we were going to talking away and making noise, so we deliberately chose a loud carriage. Easy.

When I travel to the Coast alone, I like to read a book (either sociology texts or a novel, because I am an old-fashioned nerd). This kind of deep reading requires concentration. If I were only interested in Facebook, it wouldn’t matter what carriage I was in. But when a person is trying to focus on something that requires even a modicum of intellectual investment (which Facebook usually does not), then loud noises and distraction really get in the way of the process.

This is also why when someone is making noise in a quiet carriage I do not ask them to be quiet. Often, the people policing the carriage are more distracting and noisy than the people talking. At the very least, they create more negative tension in the atmosphere, which makes the ride less pleasant than if it had just been a low-level cacophony.

It takes a village…not a city

Look, it’s not my job to raise other people’s children on public transport. If I’m getting paid for it at a school or university, sure, I’ll happily dole out my time and care and infinite patience.

One commenter doled out this stellar advice:

Screen Shot 2017-07-16 at 10.24.07 am

Let’s ignore the problematic notion of children as ‘always innocent’. I understand that it’s coming from a good place, and in the main I agree with it. But at the same time, that doesn’t give children license to scream and yell around anyone they wish (any more than it gives a fully grown adult that right). There are a range of ways people understand childhood – and the transition to responsible adulthood isn’t just a function of time, but also social responsibility and respect.

I think, of course, that kids should be allowed to play and carry on and be merry and there are plenty of occasions where I want to do the same. But it’s not my responsibility to help them do that when I want to read a book on a fucking train trip. I don’t know these kids, they aren’t my problem (except that they are deafening), and I certainly don’t want to abandon an hour of my time that could be spent doing work I crucially need to do (and chose a quiet carriage to get it done) so that I can ‘play with random kids and share my treats and sweets’. This will not make me feel happy and blissful all day (particularly since it was three in the afternoon), this will annoy me.

What will make me feel no stress? Peace. Quiet. A book. Solitude.

Not noisy children clambering all over my seat.

One of the typical critiques I will get for saying this is “oh well you just don’t know how hard it is for mothers”. And that is absolutely true, I don’t. I have nothing but admiration for the amazing mothers I know who have achieved so much at the same time as raising some really wonderful young adults. I am hugely lucky and privileged to have turned out as a gay man who won’t have to deal with those challenges.

But you know what? We all have challenges in life that we have to mediate, and one of those challenges is finding a moment’s peace. It is unreasonable to deny people that simply because others have a tougher time finding it. It is the equivalent of saying “it’s too hard to increase unemployment benefits, so actually we’re just going to take everyone else’s money so nobody is happy”. Wrong. It is possible to raise benefits without harming others – it’s why I find the sledging of male privilege really unproductive.

Non-sequitur: Male privilege is a thing. But it’s only a thing because we read it in opposition to female disadvantage. I think the reason Men’s Rights activists – who are, in the main, ridiculous – chafe so much when they hear ‘male privilege’ is that sometimes the idea of being privileged doesn’t track with their lived experience (maybe they have lost their job, maybe they live in a rural area, maybe they are gay, etc). This is intersectionality 101. What we’re really interested in is addressing disadvantage that accrues to persecuted and oppressed groups, rather than directing our gaze even more at men (surely men get enough attention as it is?)

The lazy mis-fired critique: ‘you’re a white male stranger’

I don’t know how many readers (the one reader, sure) have ridden in a quiet carriage, but the most frequent offenders are usually white and male. On their way home from an event, or work, and probably a few drinks down. They aren’t sitting on the quiet carriage because it’s malicious, but because they are unaware (somehow, four years after their introduction) that quiet carriages are a thing.

Often these high decibel conversations, punctuated by rowdy laughter, are interrupted by a passenger (usually older, and in my experience evenly split across genders – though maybe biased towards women) who says “excuse me” (there’s a particular tone to the way people say this – that really impatient cranky tone), “this is the quiet carriage”.

So, one of the critiques lobbed at my post was as follows:

Screen Shot 2017-07-16 at 9.54.09 am

Now, naturally when I receive any kind of criticism like this, I stop for a second and ask myself “shit, have I got this wrong? Check your privilege, Pat!”

And yes, there was a moment where I thought maybe I was being unreasonable. But then on further reflection, I don’t think that stands up to analysis.

Forgetting the fact that I generally really like reductress, this argument completely misses the point – and it does this with the usual progressive misfire ‘middle class white male cis blah blah blah’.

My being on the quiet carriage has nothing to do with my gender, socio-economic status or ethnicity. The state government instituted these carriages as a courtesy, and I like them because I like reading. At no point did I tell this person what to do, or ask for the child to be quiet. I just griped about it on Facebook – which I daresay is a healthier and more polite social outlet than confronting a random stranger. And that experience – having the quiet carriage disrupted by noisy people – is not an experience exclusive to ‘white middle class men’. That disturbance cuts across social divides.

The quiet carriage unites people! A space for me to express my introversion, perhaps something others have in common!

The follow up critique was a link to this post about mothers in Michigan feeling shamed about their parenting skills following critiques from strangers. Again, missing the point – I didn’t say anything to these people, I was simply inconvenienced in silence – abiding by the rules of the quiet carriage myself, hoping to be an exemplar of common courtesy.

But throwing an article like that online completely ignores context. I am not talking about abstract scenarios in Michigan where mothers are being told to discipline their child in different ways. I am talking about the specific instance of this group of people, bouncing happily onto an empty train, sitting underneath a quiet carriage sign, and making noise and playing games as though there was nobody else around to consider.

Sure, this constitutes the quiet carriage as a space that mothers of loud children are technically not welcome some of the time – but what practical difference does that make when there is a carriage immediately next to it, that is also empty, in which noise will not disturb other passengers? What is the point of pissing off all of the people in the quiet carriage? Just to prove a point that mothers should be allowed ANYWHERE regardless of REGULATIONS?

The illogic here is insane – the quiet carriages are designed to discriminate against loud passengers, and they discriminate in that sense equally. No matter your background or circumstances, if you are making noise pick a different carriage. If you have to quickly shuffle onto this carriage at a station, move to the next one when you realise it is a quiet carriage.

There are, of course, exceptions to this. If it is a packed commuter carriage, then get on the train wherever you can find space. I mean, I routinely give up seats for mothers with kids so they can sit together.

But when there is an empty train and zero mitigating circumstance why would a person actively disrupt the conditions of a carriage for other passengers? That’s literally just rudeness.

A Nice End Bit

So I’ve been a cranky jerk for 2000 words now, and you might be like “I thought you were some lovely progressive Pat, what is this”. And I am, mostly, but I also see the value in providing safe spaces for people to think. Peace and quiet are hard to come by in a frenetic world, riven with social media, commentary and noise. I get the irony in saying that in a blog post intended for social media. But you take the quiet where you can get it – and the train ride from Sydney to the Central Coast is beautiful, there are long periods with no phone reception, and quiet carriages are a pleasant reprieve from the bustling of the world.

The Real Question: How can we help mums on trains?

Because I do think we’re an incredibly rich country with a capacity to do more, so maybe what we need to be thinking is ‘can we offer a space on trains for MOTHERS ONLY’. Bear with me here.

A lot of people will be like ‘oh what next, a space for gay people? A trans space?’. And my answer would be no.

But motherhood – or parenthood, let’s not be too specific –  is an enormous and difficult thing, and we definitely don’t do enough as a society to show how much we value it. Parents are catering for two people right? So either give them their own carriage, or designate a special space in an existing carriage – particularly on long trips (like Sydney to Gosford or Newcastle). Why not put a play zone on trains for kids?

TL;DR: if you are noisy, get off the quiet carriage. And governments should put a parents & kids space somewhere on long distance trains.


One Reply to “On the carriage of quiet”

  1. LOVE! I was going to comment about you referring to “mothers” , but awesome that you pulled it back to parenthood in general. I wonder if there were more male primary carers if these situations would be worse or better?
    Having said that, I think this is just one of many examples of people in general being selfish dickheads. When mine were young I’d be mortified if they were annoying strangers on a train.

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