2 min

A city of busybodies

Stick your nose everywhere -- but don't expect action

Some city worker in Cawthra Park tells me I bought my fried chicken at the wrong place. A guy on Yonge St, apparently just trying to be helpful, tells me where to find the best deals on porn. A bookstore clerk offers a commentary on the book I’m buying. The cashier at Dominion gives me unsolicited feedback on my wardobe (nothing very flattering, I’m afraid).

I’ve been in Toronto for just a month and the people in this city just won’t get out of my face.

Which is a good thing. Minding your own business is bad for you. In Vancouver, my last stomping ground before coming to Hogtown for this Xtra gig, reserve reigns supreme. That city has a reputation for being progressive but that isn’t quite accurate. Vancouverites mind their own business with the hopes that everyone else will mind their own, too. “If I don’t glare at you fags holding hands in the street, then you won’t talk to me and put me in a socially awkward situation.”

Sounds like a win-win situation, with each party living in its own safe little universe. But that philosophy of isolation shuts down dialogue before it even starts. Civic politics wither, the vitality of street life becomes brittle, people get less sex. Steven Gauvin of Sweden complains about Vancouver in a Jul 8 letter to Xtra West, Xtra’s sister paper there: “I was met with attitude, indifference and intolerance to friendliness. To strike up a conversation or being friendly to someone in a local gay establishment was just not acceptable.”

I don’t want to Vancouver-bash. Aloofness and a leave-me-alone mentality can crop up anywhere. But social assertiveness – that sounds much nicer than busybodiness – is a strong glue for any community. Toronto is full of it. Social assertiveness produces hours of entertaining coffee shop yak – not to mention a nifty starting point for seduction – despite all its risks.

Did I say risks? Oh yeah. In a socially assertive world, strangers to you and your world do give a flying fuck what you do, even if it has no impact on their lives. (Like the car driver who told me to get a helmet, as if my squashed head mattered to him.) Opinions start flying around and before you know it, someone says “community standards.”

Action usually follows. Porn theatres like the Bijou get busted and its patrons get charged. Judges and politicians step into the fray. In a Jul 23 judgment in Montreal, Municipal Court Judge Louise Baribeau writes that a hetero swing club “dehumanizes and trivializes sexuality and is incompatible with the acceptance of human dignity.”

When busybodies are judges, cops or politicians, their opinions stop being the food for thought of civic life and become a threat. Suddenly, we who treasure social assertiveness and an engaged civic life end up on the receiving end.

There is a difference between telling people what you think and making them do it. That line gets crossed when a debate, particularly the debate over community standards, moves from coffee shops and the media to the police department and the court house. Crossing that line has become too easy. Toronto’s citizens like to open cans of worms. But that doesn’t mean institutions should rush in to regulate.

Paul Gallant is Features Editor for Xtra.