The priority seating in public transport systems seems to be the pride of all Taiwanese. Regardless of how crowded the bus or train or metro, the fact that priority seats — “altruism seats” in Chinese — will remain unoccupied for the benefit of those in need is an expression of the good manners of Taiwanese.
However, there have been frequent disputes over the priority seating system in recent years. Some even feel that the whole system is unreasonable and that it should be abolished altogether, because they feel that every seat is a priority seat. I study language, so I approach the issue from a language perspective.
What is altruism? Most dictionaries define it along the lines of “selfless concern for others.” It is indeed about moving outside one’s close social circles and showing love and concern for everyone and not only oneself, one’s family and friends.
What are priority seats? According to the Ministry of Education’s online Chinese dictionary, they are “priority seats located close to the entrance on buses for use by older people, the infirm, women, children and disabled people.” On the whole, this is a reasonable definition, although it must have been a while since it was written, as it only considers buses, while ignoring metros and other public transport systems. There is also room to improve the description of the beneficiaries of the priority seating.
The priority seating concept might have originated in Europe or the US, so let us take a look at the source. During my doctoral studies in the US 25 years ago, there were always priority seats on buses and subway trains, and they worked pretty much like priority seating here in Taiwan.
Looking at the definition in the ministry’s dictionary, it stresses “priority” rather than “exclusivity.” In other words, anyone in need has priority of usage, but if there is no one with such a need, anyone can use the seats.
Some English-speaking countries use the term “courtesy seating” rather than “priority seating.” The name implies, then, that it is a matter of courtesy and politeness based on kindness and concern for others to let someone in need use the seat.
“Altruism” is a lofty ideal that we can only aspire to live up to, and it should not become an excuse for moral oppression. “Courtesy” is an individually nurtured quality, and since it is dependent on ourselves, it should not be used as an excuse for blaming others. “Priority” is the rule for this kind of seats in Taiwan, and it is the yardstick we all have to live by.
Everyone should show concern for others. It is not something that applies to some people, while others can ignore it. In the same way, everyone should be polite and courteous; it is not something that only applies to others and not to me.
If we sit in a regular seat rather than a priority seat and see someone who needs to sit, we should display our concern for others and spontaneously offer them our seat.
Neither should priority seats be treated as sacred and inviolable so that people are afraid of sitting down, because they might have to endure the disapproving looks of other passengers and feel uneasy — and maybe even become the target of online bullying — just because they need to rest their tired legs.
Priority seats should be just that — seats that are prioritized for those in need. Anyone can use them, as long as they relinquish the seat when they see someone who needs it.
Every time a situation arises due to the use of priority seats, that is an opportunity for reflection. Perhaps more debate and practical action are the way to create understanding and build a lasting consensus on the issue.
Hugo Tseng is an associate professor in Soochow University’s English department and a visiting scholar at Fudan University in Shanghai.
Translated by Perry Svensson
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