As soon as we hit cruising altitude, the tall guy in the seat in front of my wife — he had to be 6-foot-5 — aggressively reclined his seat back as far as it would go. Thunk. His hair was scant inches from Karla's face. The tiny airspace in front of her cramped seat was gone. In its place was the considerable bulk of an oblivious stranger, concerned only about his own constricted comfort; soon, he began snoring. And so it went for the entire seven-hour red-eye across the Atlantic. Getting past that reclined seat for bathroom trips required gymnastic contortions. Those of us who fly coach — steerage without the rats — have similar experiences every time we wriggle into a modern airline's kindergarten-size seats. These close encounters have given birth to a new national debate: Do air passengers have an inalienable right to recline, or is leaning back selfish and rude?
There is a larger issue here, which is the decline in kindness and civility in nearly every sphere: airplanes, highways, social media, and, of course, politics. The anonymity of modern life and sheer number of interactions dulls our sense of each other's humanity, while sharpening our fear we're engaged in a Darwinian struggle for nearly everything, from a few inches of space on an airplane to control of the Supreme Court. Aggression and resentment are contagious. But so, say both the great sages and the scientists, is kindness. Anthropologists have concluded that human beings are hardwired for cooperation and caring as well as for cruelty, and that our ability to share knowledge and tasks enabled our species to flourish. In every religion, kindness is a central virtue. Acting in behalf of others' welfare, scientists have found, improves your own mental and physical health. Being a jerk, in other words, is a choice. We don't need to call each other names online, and we surely don't need to shove our seat backs into each other's faces.