Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Fools of Gotham

You can surely learn much about someone by the way he conducts himself, but you can perhaps learn even more by examining his expectations of others. Gothamist ran a piece yesterday titled, "Pushy Crown Heights Sign Urges You To 'Please Dress Modestly.'" One hopes they broke a smirk when writing that headline. The author, at any rate, is outraged by some local signs.

First, in a city utterly festooned with signs for parking, towing, loitering, standing, idling, sitting, honking, speeding, turning, stopping, signaling, crossing, and walking, it's a little hard to take umbrage with a few more.

Second, in a city where each and every one of those signs is backed by the threat of force–either fines or arrest–and where many of these signs are under video surveillance or are manned by armed officers, it seems an overreaction to take great issue with a sign that threatens no penalty for ignoring it. The Gothamist author adds an ominous, "Or else?" to the sign's statement to suggest there's a veiled threat, and she even italicizes it because fonts, but is her fear reasonable?

The sign is itself in no way aggressive, it even reads "please" which is something I can't say for the peremptory postings mounted by the city, and it does not come from a group known for violence. It's not as if, for example, we have any reason to be incredulous of their gesture of politeness because they are known to be disingenuous or prone to assault. Violence is not explicit, implied, or reasonably suspect.

Third, theirs is a community. It's a community because there are only communities. The fact that a coercive political entity forcibly extracts taxes and monopolizes land which they maintain does not obliterate the fact that a community, i.e. a small society, lives in its boundaries. Following from that, whenever you have a society, you have norms. Even if the larger political body is perfectly legitimate and everyone in the community assents to its rules, there is no way to stop people from having opinions about you and asking you to do something, which is what these signs do.

Moreover, paying taxes doesn't give you some infinitesimal percentage ownership of everything on which the taxes are spent. Do you think you own a percentage of use for highways, a quantity of soldiers' bullets, some of Central Park's leaves, and 10 grains of Libyan sand? This is a liberal, positivist, fantasy which seems true on paper, but whose logic does not extend to reality. In practice property is owned by those who maintain it, by those who live there. Yes, there's a logical problem here, but the problem is not that man feels like he owns what he uses, but that government gives and takes what it ought not. In this case, the government brought together two people, you and the maker of that sign, who probably wouldn't get along. You are still a guest in their community. Sorry you paid for it?

Now I agree that these signs are offensive insofar as all signs are offensive. Signs always to me betoken a society in which people do not communicate face-to-face but via the fiat of law. They betoken societies too large to know by familiarity and too fearful of their people to trust to common sense. These signs seem reasonable in what and how it asks, but suggest an inability of the members of the community to interact with one another. For all their absurdity and squabbling, there's a pragmatic and attractive element to the town hall meeting in which people peaceably and personally address their concerns. Besides, how much more reasonable are we when resolving a dispute face-to-face?

Fourth, the personal element here is perhaps the more disturbing. A statement from the woman who sent the pictures to Gothamist:
I wear what I want to (what is most comfortable and appropriate) and have done so since I was old enough to purchase my own clothes. "Modesty," as defined by others, is not a ​​​​consideration as I dress myself to face the day. I am capable of pulling together appropriate and flattering attire on my own, using my best judgement and taste. 
If one finds oneself offended by my attire, that's not my fault or my problem. Signs printed with demeaning and insulting subtext that my "immodest" attire is offensive to a particular group to which I do not belong are offensive to me.
This is precisely the kind of liberal and libertarian statement which drives conservatives batty, betraying as it does a complete disregard for common sense. You have to love the quotations around modesty, suggesting that any concept is automatically artificial and therefore has no objective credence or authority. You can hear the argument now, "There's no such thing as modesty. It's just whatever you think is right."

More important, though, is the fact that it is indeed your problem if you offend someone. Likewise theirs if they offend you. Latin's offendere means to strike, quite appropriate considering that offense in our modern sense is still violence. Yes, the violence is subject to a concept about which people may disagree, but it still needs to be dealt with lest we live in a violent society. Perhaps this violence is very slight, but a society of petty violence seems a sad thought to me. Who wants to walk around assaulted by violent sights, thoughts, words, and petty aggressions which make you regret your community with others?

I'm not suggesting we bow to the wills of the most easily offended, but rather that 1) self-righteous self-indulgence not govern expression, 2) coercion and pride be absent from expectation, and 3) imprudent political bonds not artificially make hostile neighbors of peaceable aliens. Gothamist's liberal prescription, however, is simply to be content trading trading offense. It is precisely the gentleman who seeks to avoid causing pain to others, and a society of offense is a barbarous one.

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