I was driving back to my office, loudly grooving on my Three Dog Night's Greatest Hits CD, when this guy in a pickup truck gave me the finger. In fact, he gave me two. Not to be outdone, I promptly returned his salute and pulled out in front of him.
You might think he was objecting to my tunes, but I could tell he was born before the Eisenhower administration and therefore the music was probably not the reason for his digital wave. I guessed the fact that we were both turning onto the same street was the likely cause.
What you would not be likely to guess is that he never took his hands off the wheel, and he saluted me with his index fingers. That gesture of acknowledgment is familiar to me and anyone else raised in the rural parts of Iowa and Illinois. Where country roads slice across farm, field and stream, raising your index finger at the on-coming vehicle is just a way of saying, "Hi! Greetings! Good to see you!" It might be a cousin, friend or neighbor coming at you, it might be the mailman or a total stranger, but wagging that finger was a way of greeting fellow-travelers of any stripe back when people were friendlier and courteous to nearly everyone. (The exception was for people you knew you didn't like-not strangers!) This total stranger was giving me the right of way to turn first with a classy and friendly gesture.
In a time in our land when we face so many troubles, it might seem trite to mention such an act of mere civility. Those of us who live off of other peoples' controversies could be expected to dismiss such fluff and nonsense. On the other hand, it is our profession that is inextricably bound to the history and tradition of "courtly" manners, and it seems to me that civility is not an anachronistic formalism but the very basis of our society. It allows us the distance to be individuals without necessarily being antagonists, just as in the courtroom it allows us to be adversaries without becoming mortal enemies. Like the Hindu and Japanese customs of a small introductory bow, it is a statement of fundamental respect; perhaps that is why it is becoming so rare these days. My mentor, Cid, taught me that the lack of such empathy is the root of all evil.
After the catastrophe of 9/11, there was time when such gestures were much more common. For a while we remembered that we are mostly all friends and neighbors on an elementary level, and we united against the common horror of the Trade Centers' collapse by acknowledging the basic humanity that we share. As expected, that atmosphere dissipated in the ensuing months and we got back to business as usual, enlightened self interest. But what has emerged since 9/11/01 is different, a more insecure and therefore more strident America, both more insistent on solidarity and more factionalized. In the face of perceived religious intolerance abroad, we seem to be growing more absolutist at home. In the place of real debate, we have shouting matches. In place of lip service to world peace, we have lip service to patriotism and unilateral police actions at home and abroad. In place of obnoxious lie-masters in power in Iraq, we have... Oh well, you knew it would break down somewhere. We live in a less civil world, and we are addressing it with increased hostility, hurry, and expediency, the generalized analog to "road rage." Too often, we seem to be giving the world-and anyone else who happens to disagree with us-the other finger, the one you thought I was referring to earlier.
What I saw in that man's gesture was a glimmer of a less contentious, less hurried, less self-centered society. One where just taking the time to acknowledge the other as a person might make whatever happens next a little easier. A small gesture, to be sure, but one that makes a difference in your thought processes. Why not make it part of your own mental furniture? It costs next to nothing, it works in everyday life, and it would work much more often if we stopped long enough to flash that mental finger-the index-the next time we approached our clients, our opponents, or the bench. So, let's all give 'em the finger... and maybe, just maybe, they will wave back.
Michael Raridon is a partner in the firm of Martenson, Blair & Raridon, P.C. in Rockford. He practices in the areas of family and child-related law.