Face engagements, the construction of society, and our participation

I found the essay "Face Engagements" to be a really interesting perspective on how we construct urban society. The author analyzes the different ways people recognize (or do not recognize) the presence of others in the public urban sphere. The most interesting discussion centers around "civil inattention" which is the subtle and courteous, but totally legible, way in which individuals acknowledge one another in public places. The civility of the act of has a great deal to do with proximity - specifically visual proximity. Depending on how long and from how far one acknowledges another with a glance, look or stare, the looker can convey a variety of meanings from respect for the other, to suspicion, or even ugly curiosity. Moreover, the effect of civil attention can be warped by "infractions" against this common code, such as wearing sunglasses.

This brings up questions about how we construct our public sphere at the level of individual action, common manners, and cultural norms. I was touched by the excerpt from the ex-dwarf's autobiography (although I was confused by the label ex-dwarf) - specifically the moment where he explains how he constructs his defense against stares, pity, and unwelcome remarks - "I had a standard defense-a cold stare." The character of this person was remarkably altered by the actions of those around him. Reading that, I could imagine in my mind how often people wonder aloud about how this type of person or that type of person, or even one specific person, acts in such a strange/irresponsible/mean/annoying way without ever considering how interactions are always a two-way (or more) street, or considering how public actions and personalities develop in the public sphere and in response to it.

A more recent, but equally poignant example of this kind of political struggle can be seen in the movie "Examined Life" directed by Astra Taylor. In the film, the director interviews a number of contemporary philosophers expounding on philosophy, often in public places. In one sequence Judith Butler and Sunaura Taylor, who was born with arthrogryposis and uses a wheelchair, walk the streets of San Francisco talking about how moving one's body through the public sphere can be the most political act one can make. Taylor explains how she can receive stares and even insulting "help" from others who would rather act on their preconceived notions of her abilities than listen to her requests, which reflect her understanding of how able she is. She also talks about how moving to the Bay Area was an important choice for her because the urban environment reflects a desire to accommodate a wide range of individuals with design elements as simple as curb cuts at every corner, allowing for easy wheelchair use on city streets. The creation of that level of access opens up a whole new world for Taylor as well as everyone else in the city as it fundamentally alters the fabric of the public - now Taylor is no more or less able to participate in city life and in fact the prior idea of disability was in some ways physically constructed by lack of curb cuts, or ramps to access buildings.

Butler goes on to talk about the story of a man who was beaten to death for walking the street with too much "swish." Perceived as a gay man because of the way he used his body, he was identified by others as an enemy and punished for it.

As architects what is our responsibility in constructing public society? As people what are our responsibilities in constructing/critiquing/commenting on the intangible constructs, like civil inattention, that regulate public activity? And how do we respect the rights of individuals to participate in those constructs or deny them?