Thursday, August 30, 2007

Common Courtesy and The Law

Disclaimer: I realize that I'm focusing on a very narrow aspect of society and indirectly ignoring other aspects.

Oppression is served in a variety of ways: it's doled out like street flyers, it startles you like a friend tapping your shoulder in a grocery store, it's unloaded on you from a dump truck, it's unpleasantly discovered like a hair in your ravioli, it's suggested by an authority figure . . . the list goes on.

I've lived in a few environments where oppression dominated me, though the oppressors had good intentions for their constructs. And, granted, if one has a decent head on her shoulders, she can ignore the laws that can potentially oppress; and she can simply live a happy life.

I find that many rules and laws that are legislated for the good of the community are unnecessary when common courtesy is prevalent. The article, "Welcome, Students. Now Watch It." from the New York Times, that provoked my musings is currently on my blog under the "Interesting" section. One example is the no-sleeping-in-the-subway law. Really, I shouldn't sleep in the subway? I shouldn't expose myself to possible unlawful actions performed at my expense? This is common sense. (Although, I don't mind the vagrants sleeping on the subway. If I were homeless and needed a decent rest, I would scrounge up four bucks to take a round trip from Inwood to Rockaway. And I wouldn't be bothering anyone, asking for money--I'd be getting my beauty rest). We should have laws against stealing, but not laws that help prevent one from being exposed to theft.

Another obvious solicitation of advice from The Man is the pooper-scooper-street-signs you see everywhere. "It's the law." That's why we shouldn't let our dogs shit all over the sidewalk? How about, I don't want to step in shit the next time I take my dog out for a walk.

I realize I'm picking on a few mundane laws and there are many laws that aren't mundane and are necessary to prosecute offenders in order to control crime. They don't have much theft in Singapore because they chop off a hand for punishment. I'm not saying that is a good or bad form of punishment, I'm simply saying that it's effective. But I'm talking about laws against dog shit and napping and using the lever brace on gas pump handles and walking on the grass, etc. A person feels as if he is being condescended to if he takes the laws personally. I don't, but have in the past. Now, I just think they're stupid. People who don't take the time to think about the stupidity of these laws are even more likely to get upset about them, especially if they are fined for violating one.

Oklahoma has a law that says you can't drive through a yellow light unless you are presently in the intersection when the light turns yellow. What?! So now we aren't only worried about running an orange light, but a blue light as well. How do they prosecute this? It's a subjective law. Civilian: "My windshield was past the crosswalk when the light turned yellow." Police Officer: "No, your fender hadn't even reached the crosswalk before the light changed."

I'm not coming down on The Man and I'm not for anarchy. I just think we could thin the books by removing a few of these frivolous laws.

Where is the dividing line between frivolous laws and necessary laws? That is the headache of all concerned parents. Do I give her a little breathing room or do I drop the hammer this time? Because oppression breeds rebellion, but a hands-off approach can be equally dangerous.

What is the answer to this quandary? Am I talking in circles? Yes.

But this is what I do know: the government prosecuting subway sleepers is the same as Daddy grounding his son for not putting his toothbrush in the holder.

Maybe I'm just a liberal hippie, but I don't think so.


  1. You're such a liberal hippie.

    (love the disclaimer, btw. Do you mind if I tattoo that on my forehead?)

  2. please do. and my blog address down your nose as a reference.

  3. I struggle with this same stuff all the time... It's a huge question, really.... How do we get people to do the right thing? Fear of punishment? Empathy training? Because it's the Right Thing and people should be obedient to the Right Thing?

    I know from watching teenagers that oppression can indeed breed rebellion. Maybe it's all about the Golden Mean, moderation. Sigh.

    The problem with unenforceable laws is that they can make people contemptuous of all laws. But society is full of unenforceable, flouted and selectively enforced laws. How can this be fair?

    My problem is, I get exactly one chance to do this right with my kids. No pressure, right?

  4. I agree with dana. How do you get people to do what they should? Eventually, if oppression like this rises above trival matters, situations like the civil rights movemtent will be needed again.

  5. Hey Mr. E,

    There's a CD that you gave to Jordan Secrist and I think the artists name starts with "Brian"... we listened to it last night, and this one song sounds like circus music, but I don't know how to retrieve it.

    If you know what CD I'm talking about, or what artist, could you post it on Stallings blog?



  6. What the hades, Mr. E? Should I interpret the above post as to mean you've never read Civil Disobedience?

    Anyhow, I've kinda tried to avoid commenting this post because I knew I wouldn't be able to say everything satisfactorily without writing a treatise, so here's my best shot:

    Less government is b-- damn it, this has been done before.
    Laissez-f... uck, that one too.

    Honestly though, as much as I like to blame government, these are problems of people. Within the past 50 years there's been a lot of courtesy that has been legislated because people are growing increasingly rude and disrespectful (most often with driving and property, as far as I can tell). Worrisome, however, is that Europe has been doing a lot of legislation of courtesy and manners... and it's outright creepy. English nannies are known for being horrifying, so could the English "nanny state" be any less frightening? I think the same can be said for Germany, which constantly tries to distance itself from Nazism by criminalizing Nazi references and offensive/insulting speech or gestures (and no, that's not my way of saying that shouting "seig heil" and doing a Roman salute is illegal. German equivalents of flipping the bird are illegal, pretty much).

    Beyond that, it seems to me that restrictions on subway-hobos are probably a bit more rooted in classism than genuine concern.

  7. i think we should just get rid of the yellow light all together, what good does it serve!?

  8. Yep, I have to agree with this blog. You put it well!

  9. Interesting to know.