Oliver: What happens when one’s rights butt up against being a good neighbor?

Thinking about others can be hardest when we don’t fully agree with what’s being asked of us

A recent social media post got me thinking about the intersection of individual rights and the obligation we all have to be members of the community.

A man entered a local gas station to pick up a few items. The gas station, like many businesses in the area, had marked places to stand in order to maintain the recommended 6-foot physical distance between customers to limit the possibility of transmitting COVID-19.

Apparently, this man was standing “about 3 inches” past the designated spot. The clerk, who was waiting on other customers, yelled at him to move back.

This did not sit well with the man. When it was his turn to purchase his items, he said the clerk continued to scold him, so he gave the clerk a piece of his mind and left without buying anything.

The man then turned to social media to air his complaint and no doubt to seek like-minded individuals to side with him. The post when I saw it had more than 300 responses, so I’m guessing he received the support he was after.

I admit freely that I did not look at the responses. I know how those things go, and I wasn’t in the mood to depress myself. Despite COVID-19 being a medical issue, it long has taken political overtones that make it almost impossible to reason with anyone once their mind is made up.

You see, the man had every right to leave the store without buying anything. We all have the option of “voting with our feet.” And I have no problem with exercising one’s freedom to post something on social media, even if it’s not my style.

However, I also know that a business has the right to set the rules about how it expects customers to behave. Who hasn’t seen the sign “no shirt, no shoes, no service”? We rarely hear about shoeless people making a fuss about not being able to buy a Snickers bar, do we?

When it comes right down to it, how hard would it have been to move back 3 inches? It’s not as if the request would have been painful or difficult to do.

However, pride and a sense of one’s “rights” were involved, so this is the situation that oftentimes arises. Thank goodness it did not end violently, as it has in other places.

If the clerk wasn’t exactly friendly with the request to step back, could it be that he has had to make this request over and over again? It can’t possibly be easy to be a front-line worker during a pandemic. Yet would it have been different had the request been made kindly? In this case, we’ll never know.

And what about the customer in front of the man? Could that person be someone who really doesn’t want to be out and about and had to be there and was terrified that this man was “invading” his or her space? Would stepping back have been easier if the man had thought about the “rights” of the person in front of him?

Oftentimes, we pat ourselves on the back when we step up for other people in times of crisis. And that’s OK because those are the times we should be stepping up. Our community is amazing when there’s a big crisis. We always come through, and each of us should be commended.

However, that’s also some of the easiest times to put the community before ourselves.

When it isn’t as easy is when our “rights” are involved, when thinking about the people around us isn’t as natural and obvious.

Those times come when we don’t agree with the decisions of the business or the government or the community. When we feel inconvenienced by having to consider what everyone else wants or needs.

Sometimes being a “good citizen” is a matter of inches – in this case “about 3.”

Joan Oliver is the former Northwest Herald assistant news editor. She has been associated with the Northwest Herald since 1990. She can be reached at

Joan Oliver

Joan Oliver

A 30-year newspaper veteran who has been a copy editor, front-page editor, presentation editor, assistant news editor and publication editor, as well as a columnist and host of an online newspaper newscast.