TEMPERS SEEM to be rising in this country as the ordeal of the American hostages in Iran continues. Scuffles have broken out at several places around the country between Iranian students, demonstrating against the government that is their host, and Americans who have taken offense. There was an interesting scene yesterday in McPherson Square, as a knot Iranian demonstrators were surrounded by a ring of Metropolitan police protecting them from American counter-demonstrators. It's hardly necessary to expand on the contrast between the protection offered the Iranians here and the imprisonment of the American diplomats in Tehran.

The administration is entirely right about the need to keep voices down, and to avoid useless rhetoric, during the delicate attempts to secure the release of the hostages. But this discipline contributes to a sharp sense of exasperation and impotence among Americans. What can you do?

In fact, there is one thing that you can do -- one thing that makes sense and will have an impact. The Iranian government is threatening to cut off oil shipments to the United States. The right response for Americans is to cut back the amount of oil they buy and burn, and leave the various ayatollahs and mullahs to take their oil elsewhere.

It would be a great deal more than an angry gesture. Any significant reduction in oil imports by the United States now would begin to bring a salutary degree of balance back into the world oil trade. It would become a little less of a seller's market. The pressure of high worldwide demand for oil constitutes a standing invitation to the exporting countries to keep raising prices, to play favorites among customers and to demand intolerable political concessions. If demand dropped a bit, the sellers would suddenly find that their leverage was not nearly so overpowering.They would have to begin allocating production cuts among themselves, an awkward and divisive process.

How much should you cut back? If every household in the country reduced its oil consumption by five pints a day, that would add up to a million barrels -- double t he present flow of imports from Iran. The country now uses about 10 gallons of oil a day per household, when you count not only personal cars and home heating but industrial and commercial use. Cutting five pints out of that 10 gallons ought not to be impossible. It won't return us to the Stone Age. Since most of that oil is used on the highway, the highway is the place to start saving it.

Together, as a country, we drove ourselves into this mess. Any time we want to do it, we can walk out of it.