02 October 2006

Adventures in Voluntary Restraint

At the beginning of my course on The North American City, I spend a fair amount of time trying to show how the New England town and village, especially the former, derived from medieval value systems and land use practices. I emphasize that the success of the Puritan communities depended on the willingness of individuals to practice “voluntary restraint.” Some of the scholarly literature on this subject is wonderful, particularly a book by Kenneth Lockridge called A New England Town: The First Hundred Years. And I have students read a selection from John R. Stilgoe’s Common Landscape of America, 1580-1845.

The meaning of voluntary restraint is not self-evident, however, and I have found that some American students have a very hard time with it. I would submit that there are two reasons for this.

To begin with, voluntary restraint in the New England town was not simply a matter of self-control. There were sanctions, and some of them—think Hester Prynne—were severe. Ostracism and expulsion, and the denial of the comforts of religion, are not to be taken lightly in any society. So, the “voluntary” dimension of the phenomenon is inherently problematic.

Second, there is the brute fact that twenty-first century Americans have relatively little direct experience with voluntary restraint. It’s no wonder they find it a difficult concept.

They should come to Finland. I’m not sure I have ever seen a better lesson in the meaning of voluntary restraint than the spectacle I witness every time I go into the city center, keskusta. Heading south, I have to cross an east-west street called Linnankatu where it intersects with Kirkkokatu, which is where the Lutheran Cathedral scowls at the Holiday Inn across the street (see “Yikes?” over yonder in Previous Posts). Now, Linnankatu is a main artery, a one-way (westbound) street. Heavy traffic feeds into it from only a block away, but it comes in waves, and when the surge is over, that’s pretty much it. It is not particularly wide (two lanes), and the sight lines are completely unobstructed. I made the mistake of saying to a local that, looking east, you can see all the way to the Russian border, from there. (Actually, it’s over 200 kilometers away.) “No, you can’t,” she said, deadpan. People in Finland have no taste for hyperbole. If I’ve thought that once, I’ve thought it a million times.

Anyway, the entertainment lies in watching the pedestrians and bikers congregate at the corner and wait for the light to change. I should note in passing that they are on the corner in the first place because there is no jaywalking in Finland. So there they are. Bikers poised, waiting for permission to be granted by the automatic timer on the traffic light. Walkers, cooling their heels, and maybe bouncing on the balls of their feet. The weather, the time of day, the physical condition of the participants—all are of no consequence. They wait. The men in business suits carrying the attaché cases. The rebels with the tattoos and tongue studs. They all wait. A Finnish pesäpallo player could run back and forth across that street forty times after the wave and before the light turns. Heck, those guys take longer leads off base than that. And still, on the corner of Linnankatu and Kirkkokatu, they wait.

No, we wait. And that’s the kicker. I stand there and wait with them. Of course, I’m nearly apoplectic, thinking Why don’t they go? Why don’t they go? But I’ve never seized the opportunity to show them how it’s done. Not once. Why? That, comrades, is the meaning of voluntary restraint.

It doesn’t come naturally, I’ll say that. In August, during the orientation program for this year’s Fulbrighters in Helsinki, we listened to a presentation by a young woman who works for the tax office. Basically, her message was that we ought to report any outside income—even income earned from U.S. sources—during our Fulbright tenure. That way, she explained, the experts in her office can determine whether we owe Finland any taxes. I could hardly believe my ears. Some of my colleagues gently probed to see how seriously they ought to be attending to this unwanted obligation. I sat quietly, impassively. But on the inside—and I suspect I was not alone in this—I had already joined the insurgency. “Watch the police and the taxman miss me! I’m mobile!”

As I have written many times in this blog, I admire Finnish orderliness and the willingness of people here to take a number and await their turn. And yet, it has its limits, doesn’t it? I’m in the process of preparing a post that argues—well, it suggests—that Finnish cuisine has been inhibited by the instinct to wait at the curb with everyone else.

I suspect that it manifests itself in other ways, as well. Can it be a coincidence that Finland was the only country to re-pay its war debts after World War II? And I have heard colleagues complain that university administrators are too quick to comply with directives from the education ministry in Helsinki, or from the EU. “We should say to them,” I heard one faculty member moan, “we (at the University of Oulu) will comply with the Bologna Process as soon as the University of Bologna has done so. Why do we always have to be first?”

I’ve noticed that students here in Finland have had no trouble understanding the concept of voluntary restraint. I hope they see its limits as well.