The Zone Between `Should' and `Must'

By , Ruth Walker is the deputy editor of the Monitor.

PUBLIC profanity has been outlawed by the City Council in Quincy, Mass., home of two presidents, John Adams and John Quincy Adams, and of John Hancock, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. The problem for which this is supposed to be the solution is that groups of teenagers have tended to gather at the local bus and subway station, and their unpleasant language, directed at one another and at passersby, has offended local officials.

Those particularly offended include the mayor, who is trying to nurture tourism in his city, and doesn't want rowdies to scare people away. City officials are negotiating with the federal government for the establishment of a national heritage park in Quincy, site of the mansion in which the two presidents lived and the church where they worshipped.

One can empathize; it's all a struggling tourist site needs for the word to get around, ``It's an interesting old house, but that crowd outside the station is bad news. Maybe you should visit the JFK birthplace in Brookline instead.''

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But the new ordinance is vague on what constitutes ``profane or obscene language,'' and the executive director of the Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts has promised to challenge the measure if it is enforced. Others seem to feel the ordinance is simply overkill. One city councilor said, ``There are only a few punks that we must take care of.... This did not call for a law....''

Indeed. The mayor and the council illustrate the kind of confusion that can occur in the zone between ``should'' and ``must'' - or in this case, between ``shouldn't'' and ``mustn't.'' Clearly kids shouldn't just be hanging around the station and shocking passersby with their colorful vocabulary, not just because they are a nuisance but because they should have more constructive activities in their lives.

But the answer isn't another law, especially not one of dubious constitutionality. Remember the good old days when a police officer could just tell potential troublemakers to ``move along''?

We don't mean to harp; we suspect that this whole controversy, which began a couple of weeks ago, will be resolved one way or another by the time you read this. But again and again in public life, we see those unable to distinguish between courses of action that are undesirable, and those that should be illegal - or to look at the positive side, to see that some things should be done, even if they can't be compelled.

A couple of months ago a high school principal in New York was drawing a fair bit of ink for his introduction of a new voluntary dress code. Senior boys were to start wearing ties and dress shirts on Fridays, with the other classes to be phased into the program by February. Shirts and ties would be provided to any young man who lacked them. (In fact, people from around the country were sending in shirts and ties in case anyone came up short. A program for girls is to come in the new year.)

School board policy prohibits a mandatory dress code, and so students know that they have a choice. That's what's appealing about this whole thing. We're long past the time when school administrators argued that civilization as was then known would collapse if girls were allowed to wear jeans to school. (Some feel civilization has already collapsed.) The need nowadays seems to be for more structure in young people's lives.

In any case, the ``dress for success'' policy was a big hit; the students gave their principal a standing ovation the first necktie Friday. They understand that positive peer pressure will ultimately be what enforces the dress code - peer pressure, that is, along with the desire to please a principal seeking to honor his students by demanding more of them than has been asked before.

Leadership understands the zone between ``should'' and ``must.'' Enlightened leadership gets the people to do what they should do, even if it's not something they absolutely must do.

``What's next in 1991?'' we've been asking throughout this edition. One prediction from this corner: You can look for more people to get lost in the zone between ``should'' and ``must.''

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