Possession is nine-tenths of the lawlessness

Years ago, I was walking down a street in Toronto behind two 20 year olds guys who were both drinking cups of coffee in Styrofoam cups. At some point, they finished their coffee and nonchalantly tossed the cups onto the front lawn of somebody’s house. I was very miffed at this gesture and I picked up both cups, walked quickly up to the two guys, stopped them and politely explained that I didn’t think it was much trouble to hold onto the cups until they saw a trash can. "After all," as I went on to explain, "This is our city." I walked off carrying the cups expecting to hear some derogatory comment, a nasty chuckle or even a profanity but there was only silence behind me.

I’ve never forgotten this incident and have ofttimes thought of it in terms of whether I would be risking a more negative reaction even a physical response like a punch in the nose if I did this today. At the time and still today, I remain slightly mystified and flabbergasted at how much we collectively seem to follow the principle of "out of sight, out of mind". The sooner we can get rid of something we don’t want, the better. There is a total disconnect between our desire to "make it go away" and what happens afterwards to whatever we’re trying to get rid of.

However, the key piece of the above is the question of possession, of property. Would the two gentlemen mentioned above have thrown their cups on their own lawn? I’m sure any of us would say, "Of course not." Why? Who wants to have litter on their own lawn? It’s unsightly. But the lawn of this anonymous person wasn’t theirs; they had no feeling of possession. Who cares? Just get rid of the cups. This is where I make my little joke by turning the saying around: possession or lack thereof is nine-tenths of the lawlessness. You don’t own the property; you don’t care; you litter.

The Broken Window Theory

The name of this theory comes from an article published in the March 1982 edition of the magazine The Atlantic Monthly. The authors presented a scenario of a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, vandals will break more windows and inevitably, they may even break into the building. The authors also spoke of how litter generates more litter: people demonstrate a greater tendency to litter in areas where there is already litter than in areas which are clean.

In a nutshell, BTW says that litter leads to litter, disorder leads to crime. True? False? Certain studies have proven it to be true; certain studies question the validity of the statistics while even other studies have pointed out that other factors such as culture and economic status come into play. Nevertheless, there does seem to be obviousness to the idea and so much so, BTW has been employed by numerous people, municipalities, organizations, etc. as the golden rule of their governance. If we keep things clean, there is a greater chance that people when left to their own devices will also keep things clean.

Nobody cares

This seems to be the idea to try and impart to people: please care. I would guess; I would hope that most people would want to have a decent, clean home. Can the idea of "my" home be extended? This is "my" street? This is "my" town?

My wife and I were visiting one of our daughters and I offered to take the dogs out for a walk. I went over to the local park and while wandering around, I discovered several points where people had just throw stuff on the ground, stuff like the wrappers and bag of a fast food meal. I then found a plastic grocery bag so while the dogs sniffed around; I set about picking up all this loose garbage. Part of me doing this may have been some sort of civic altruism, but there was also my hope of removing the temptation of left-over food from the dogs. While I only spent a couple of minutes doing this trash pick-up, I did manage to make what I thought to be a noticeable difference.

When I think of the people who ate these fast food meals, just how big of an effort would have been necessary to take their garbage over to the trash can? Why didn’t they? Out of sight, out of mind? Or who cares, it’s not my park? Whatever the case, this goes on everywhere and I’m certain that if I stopped anybody to ask them why they were leaving their garbage around, they would tell me that it’s no big deal, somebody will pick it up. Really? Does your mommy work for the city?

Nine-tenths

My wife and I live in downtown Toronto. We were out for a walk the other night and we came up behind somebody smoking a cigarette. As we approached the corner to cross the street, the person stopped, looked both ways to check traffic, then before stepping onto the street to cross, they flicked their half smoked cigarette onto the sidewalk. They didn’t even step on it to extinguish it. As I walked holding my wife’s hand, I had to roll my eyes.

During the G20 summit, we watched CP24’s coverage while we watched from our balcony what was going on in the streets. We actually went out onto the streets and watched and heard people chanting, "Whose streets? Our streets!" We saw windows being smashed, police cars being burned and at one point, saw somebody throw something at the mounted police and knock a policeman off his horse. An extreme example, I grant you but would anybody do that on their own street?

Toronto is "my" city. Downtown is "my" neighbourhood. This is "my" street. I’m worried about how you’re going to behave if I ever let you in my house.

References

Broken Window Theory
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fixing_Broken_Windows

Experimental evidence for the Broken Window Theory
http://www.cognitionandculture.net/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=366

Disparity and Diversity in the Contemporary City: Social (Dis)Order Revisited
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2864585/

Click HERE to read more columns by William Belle.

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