Why Can't People Be Normal in Public Anymore?

Punch-ups at theatres, fights on aeroplanes: We asked “On Being Unreasonable” author Kirsty Sedgman what's going on.
Three young people having seriousargume  at dinner party
Photo: Uwe Krejci via Getty Images

You’ve probably seen the increase in public incidences of hostility and straight-up aggression: this woman, for example, drunkenly singing along to The Bodyguard musical, stopping the show twice before the police booted her out. In November two audience members started to scrap at a production of Hamilton in Manchester, UK. And how about just last week, at the same theatre, when a man reportedly hit a woman on the arm and told her to be quiet during the ballet, only for the woman’s husband to punch the man repeatedly in the head and possibly explode his eyesocket? 


And that’s just like, the one theatre in Britain. But it’s not just Britain, and it’s not just the theatre. It’s quite literally any public space or event: There’s been an uptick in people misbehaving at gigs, filming each other in clubs or at the gym, and you probably don’t need me to tell you about all the aeroplane-related nightmares unfolding at a seemingly near-constant level.

So the people, you and I included, aren’t doing well. And it was the whole man-gets-eye socket-exploded-at-the-ballet that brought University of Bristol senior theatre lecturer Kirsty Sedgman to our attention. Her specialism is audiences, and, in response to the news story, she tweeted a thread explaining why people acting out is on the rise. She’s also got a new book out, called On Being Unreasonable, which touches on this very topic, so we thought it was high time we got the lowdown on why people are acting so insane.

VICE: Hi Kirsty! I'm interested in hearing about your research into audiences.
Kirsty Sedgman:
My research has been about what does it mean to feel like we're reasonable people, with the right to judge other people, to shame other people. When is that actually a really good thing, because it's maintaining the social contract and encouraging adherence to pro-social modes of behaviour, and when does that potentially cross the line into an unacceptable kind of behaviour policing? The [ballet incident] was particularly interesting because there were layers: Somebody was shushed, and instead of piping down or saying sorry, or maybe letting out a passive-aggressive tut, it turned to violence. There's so much in that one incident that I've been seeing echoed, increasingly, since I started working on this project.

Author Kirsty Sedgman posing against graffiti backdrop

Kirsty Sedgman. Photo courtesy of Kirsty-Sedgman

It does seem as though audiences are becoming more unruly. 
People have been saying exactly the same thing since Plato. Plato 2,000 years ago was saying that audiences used to be quiet and respectable. And then a “vicious theatrocracy” had emerged, as he called it, where audiences who used to hold their tongues had found their voice. So in one sense, we've been having these debates for a very long time about whether there is a real growing problem in audience behaviour, but also antisocial behaviour in the world more broadly. There was this growing sense before the pandemic that the audiences were getting increasingly badly behaved. But then since COVID, it seems undeniable that there has been a palpable shift – something's changed, and we don't have the hard quantitative data yet, although it is emerging. A growing number of people seem to be actively resistant to being asked to stop being disruptive to others. 

There is a real hunger and actually a real communal need for spaces in society for more exuberant forms of joyous collective experience. So for some people, there is a resistance to going back into theatres and sitting in total silence and stillness, because they actually don't want theatre to be like that at all. That's one of the things I work with theatres a lot – how do you balance those competing needs without destroying the experience for everybody else?


Can we see what's going on in society by looking at audience behaviour?The more I study audiences, particularly in live performance – both historically and the contemporary audience – the more I realise that they've always been a canary in the coal mine. They're an advanced warning system of when societal shifts or changes or frustrations are about to emerge more broadly. Very often, they erupt first in live performance spaces. That's not because of the tremendous overwhelming power of art, it's largely because pragmatically, those are one of the few spaces that we have, where different members of society tend to collect together quite closely into one space. 

Another place where we see people kicking off at each other more and more today is public transport, as we're being packed ever closer together like sardines in a can… What really interests me about those moments is how we can watch the same events unfolding, whether it's through a video or because we're there in that space, and often come to such radically different conclusions about who was acting reasonably. 

Quite often on social media, you'll see some video of a mad altercation, and then the caption will be like, “Who's in the wrong?”
That's one of the things I write about in the On Being Unreasonable. These ideas about who is reasonable, and in a world where we all think we're reasonable people, how can we figure out what's right? But I think we're seeing exactly those same patterns playing out online, in cafes, in our neighbourhoods. This has been going on for a very long time, but with an upward uptick from the 1970s onwards. We saw a gradual process of political, technological and economic incentivisation to think in individualistic rather than communitarian ways. 


That doesn't mean that we can't be held responsible if we're acting like selfish assholes. In fact, part of what I argue is that we need sturdy mechanisms for actually upholding the social contract, and encouraging people to behave in ways that are not, say, listening to loud music on the bus without earphones in a way that is disturbing everybody else. But what I say is that we need to think about how the disconnection economy is working to divide us. Social media is obviously a really important part of that, because these spaces are not really set up for nourishing and productive forms of communication.

It seems there’s also a lot of bad behaviour going on at concerts, in gyms, on planes etc. What are the actual reasons for that?
It's not just that it's bad behaviour, there are some really deeply weird things happening. I think Pink was handed a baggie of somebody's mother's ashes at a gig; someone gave Taylor Swift a wheel of brie. So yeah, lots of weird stuff is happening when people collect closely together. Part of this puzzle is social media rewards everybody, but particularly younger people, for generating content. A lot of the Gen Z people that I work with and know, they are seeing content producing is actually a viable potential career option. So it's possible that some people, particularly the ones doing the more wacky stuff might be potentially trying to get somebody to film it – they might be trying to turn that into content. 

Someone like the person who is handing Pink a bag of ashes… There's this thing that we call parasocial relationships, where we form really strong connections with people that we only know through a screen. And of course, social media has intensified that sense, because it feels like we get to know somebody on a more personal level. But that celebrity has no idea who we are. Live performance is also one of those very few spaces where people get to break through that fourth wall. I’m doubting if many people who are attending concerts and doing something that will register with the performer think that means they're entering into a real relationship with them. But there can be a sense of, “Well, I want some kind of connection. I want to feel like I have registered on that person's mind, even if only for a second.” 

What happens within a society when you see people breaking the social contract, particularly powerful people who break rules with impunity, and you see them not just getting away with it, but actively benefiting? For some people, it can really lead to a strongly held sense that “Well, if authority figures are breaking rules, then why should I have these responsibilities?” That's why I call it, a bit tongue-in-cheek, “don't tell me what to do-itis”.