Giving courtesy a shot in the arm

Giving courtesy a shot in the arm

SINGAPORE - Last Tuesday night, a 47-year-old man spat repeatedly at two women in a dispute over queue-jumping at a bus interchange.

If the man, an odd-job worker, was not mentally disturbed, this incident would represent a truculence not seen very frequently even in Singapore's less-than-always-gracious society.

This sort of nastiness busts the rules of civility, which are merely social rules, not laws. But it does raise the question of whether rudeness could ever be legislated away or graciousness brought in by law.

A classmate of mine from graduate school who was in town told me that, in his native Germany, the regulation of civility actually helps to maintain respectful interpersonal relations.

People are more polite by law in Germany, where rudeness is regulated by the law of Beleidigung ("insult"), he said. Perhaps Singapore could pass such a law?

This German law criminalises not just odious behaviour but even words and gestures that show what the law calls "disrespect or lack of respect" for another person in Germany. (But in practice, this applies only to Germans, not foreigners.)

For example, calling someone "you swine" or "you jerk" is a crime. So too, if you tap a finger on your forehead (which is called making "the bird" sign) to indicate to another person that you think he is not right in the head.

Giving the finger - or "stinkefinger" in German - is criminalised. So is addressing someone who is not a close friend with the informal "du" instead of "Sie" (which is always capitalised in writing) for "you". Incredibly, such infractions can attract a jail term of up to two years or a fine.

The law of insult does not protect reputation as such but personal honour instead.

Reputation comes under the law of defamation when one counters embarrassing allegations about oneself made in public. But in defending one's honour, which comes under the law of insult, one is fighting to have another person show one respect, whether in private or public.

Here, rudeness is seen as an assault on the victim's personal honour. This principle inheres in the fabric of social life in Germany today, informing issues that might seem petty to outsiders.

It requires that everyone - actually everyone who is racially German, though Jews are an exception, but not Turks or other foreigners - be accorded a minimum of honour and respect.

This notion of respect matters in German law and society in a way that might not make much sense in the United States or Singapore, my friend ventured, for neither has had Europe's experience with the horrors of Fascism.

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