Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Legislating Respect

Lance Whitney used his Politics and Law blog on CNET News this morning to discuss a recent initiative of the municipal government of Philadelphia (the “City of Brotherly Love”), which he summarized as follows:

Launched in May, a new program known as "Give Respect, Get Respect" is geared to crack down on all sorts of "bad behavior" on and off the road, from cell phone-carrying pedestrians who talk and text while they walk to bicylists who ride on the sidewalk.

As might be imagined, this post attracted a fair share of comments, most of which involved rants against “Nanny state” thinking.  Such comments also tended to argue that those who behave badly should experience the consequences directly, rather than through government intervention.  OniOokamiAlfador described himself as “a big enough guy” that he does not have to worry about getting out of the way of someone distracted by using their mobile phone to text or talk.

Then there was driveteach1, who was definitely not shy about venting:

When you are just too stupid to pay attention to others, when in a public place, and put others in jeopardy because of your egotistical lifestyle, a good smack in the wallet is a good thing.

In other words this comment supports the city’s decision to “crack down” on “bad behavior” by imposing fines as at least a step in the right direction.

My problem, however, is that, however cumulative they may be, steps could well be too small to have any impact.  My own comment described the city’s actions as “trying to put a Band-Aid on a severed carotid artery.”  “Dangerous behavior” (which I prefer to “bad behavior”) is a highly nebulous concept, which will always mean many different things in many different contexts.  The same may be said about the sources of that behavior.  It is easy enough to blame technology, but what about the general public attitude that no level of government either knows or cares about the conditions they have to endure in economic hard times?  When an individual feels that any sort of meaningful bond to a broader sense of society has been obliterated along with more tangible items, such as food, clothing, and shelter, is it any surprise when that individual retreats into raw, survival-driven egotism?

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