The Wheatley Institution

Fellow Notes


Signals of Civic Virtue

“Small actions have large consequences in both the deterioration and building up of civic virtue.”

Terrance D. Olson | March 4, 2016
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A traffic signal switches from amber to red, symbolizing the warning signs advertising the need to stop deterioration in civic life.



The traffic light turns yellow and two cars race through the intersection, followed by a third that speeds up to fly through the now red light. This is not an act of distracted driving (given the sudden acceleration factor), but of deliberate risk-taking. The act puts the red light runner and other drivers at risk of dramatic and destructive outcomes. Perhaps the yellow-red light roulette engaged in by many has become so routine that it seems to be statistically irrelevant to actual safety. But the act need not be evaluated only using the percentage of red-light runners as compared to red-light running accidents. Such behavior could be a sign of how civic virtue is deteriorating in a culture where, not just when driving, we see others as things to be ignored or used instead of as people who matter. Many people may no longer see their public behavior as contributing to the deterioration of the quality of life in a community.

The examples of this neglect of our role in preserving or undermining the quality of life in a community are easy to find. A woman leaving a quick stop gas station crumples a candy bar wrapper and throws it out the window as she slides into traffic. A man hurries to make a right turn at an intersection where a pedestrian is in his path. An adolescent knocks over a trash can in the school hallway and sidesteps the litter scattered across the floor. These are hardly momentous lapses of citizenship—or are they?

James Q. Wilson is credited with inspiring Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s implementation of Wilson’s “Broken Windows” theory[1] to clean up the environs of New York City’s Times Square. Through a series of practices that included citing people for littering and replacing broken windows in (often vacant) buildings, even violent crime was significantly reduced.[2]

Gary Morson coined the term prosaics as a response to “. . . Tolstoy’s idea that what really matters in history and individual lives is the small things, the countless ordinary events that constitute daily life, rather than the grand events or dramatic crises on which historians and novelists typically focus.”[3] It is not that dramatic events do not matter, but often, in “. . . viewing our own lives and history, we are mislead by a sort of perceptual illusion: we assume that what is most noticeable and memorable must be most important, whereas it is really the sum total of small decisions and events that shapes what happens at critical moments.”[4]

So yellow lights, candy wrappers and driving habits may be more significant to the quality of life in a community than we suppose. It may be true that if we focus on the meaningfulness of our attitudes and actions in everyday life, we may recognize more fully how true it is that “out of small things can come that which is great”—for good or ill. It is also true that even if we foster a sense of ethical or moral responsibility for how we treat others when we drive, shop, participate in public meetings, or write a letter to the newspaper, we may not know the outcome of behaving respectfully and compassionately but we will become more sensitive as to whether we are part of the problem or of the solution regarding what ails the quality of life in our community, and the quality of relationships in our families.

Jake was heading to the airport when he remembered the request by the Chief Financial Officer of his company to fill the gas tank of the rental car so as to reduce the costs incurred when the rental company charged for filling the tank. It was already touch and go to catch his flight. But he decided to honor the CFO’s request and give a try to stopping for gasoline. He began to mutter in his mind about the possible obstacles to his decision—not the least of which would have been a line of cars at the gas station making it impossible for him to make his flight.

He was ecstatic to find that he could pull forward to the proper gas pump and not be competing with other customers. But he couldn’t get the gas pump to turn on. It took him a while to pay attention to the sign on the pump: “Pay first, then pump.” Vaguely aware that another car had just pulled up behind his, and looking at his watch, Jake raced to the cash register where a young girl was waiting to take payments. He opened the door, threw his credit card at the girl, and bellowed, “Will you please turn on the pump NOW!” He turned to get back to the pump and was successful in starting the flow of gasoline. The woman now pumping gas in the car behind him softly said, “Sir you really have no right to treat that girl that way.” Jake tightened his grip on the handle of the pump and said nothing. But he was now fuming. Then he admitted to himself that the woman had been right. Her boldness woke him up to the truth that he would have been furious if someone had treated his colleagues or his daughter the way he had behaved toward the cash register clerk.

He finished pumping and headed for the cashier, who was ready with the credit card, the receipt for him to sign, and had pushed the pen and receipt across the counter as close to Jake’s side as she could, while standing as far away as possible. Jake raised his arms in surrender and apologized to the girl. Her mouth dropped. Jake headed out briskly, not to his car, but toward the woman who was still pumping gasoline. She, not being aware of Jake’s repentance, made sure the gasoline hose was now between her and the approaching Jake. Raising his arms again he said, “Ma’am, it took courage to call me out like you did, and I am grateful you did it. I just apologized to the girl and I thank you for helping set me straight.” As he got into his car, he could see how her jaw had also dropped. Jake made the flight, but as he told this story, he noted that even if he had missed the flight, he felt that out of this small thing, he had learned something great. [It is also likely that he didn’t run any yellow lights on the way to the rental car lot.] Perhaps lifting society by preserving and strengthening its core institutions begins in the little things—and in our own modest but significant contributions to civic virtue.


[1] Wilson & Kelling, The Atlantic Monthly, March 1982.

[2] See Giuliani, www.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=95086; and usmayors.org/bestpractices/litter/New York.html.

[3] Morson, Gary. “Prosaics Evolving.” The Slavic and East European Journal, 41.1 (Spring 1997): 57.

[4] Morson, 58-59.