#alienadventures: what a piece of bubble gum says about our levels of respect

I’m one of those people who gets niggled by litter. Seeing an area covered in litter irks me, but watching someone actually do the littering takes my blood pressure to unhealthy levels. It’s especially upsetting when I see people casually throw something out of a car window. In the last week alone I’ve seen a taxi driver throw a plastic, two-liter bottle onto a highway, as well as a young twenty something girl turf a banana peel out the window at a suburban stop street.

If this happens while I’m walking in the street, I at least get the warped pleasure of tapping the person on the shoulder and informing them – with saccharine politeness – that they’ve dropped something. Reactions to this form of civil policing usually range from embarrassment to open hostility, but at least there’s some level of awareness that’s passed on. In a car, there’s no opportunity to engage, so the frustration induces even higher blood pressure levels.

I don’t buy the retort that throwing litter on the ground ensures jobs for cleaners. That’s like saying; I’d better do a bit of crime, so that the police can be kept busy. Disrespect for public spaces speaks volumes, and littering tells you a lot about a society.

Recent events in South Africa – from police brutality, to the brutal rape and murder of Anene Booysen – have at least, unleashed a wave of soul searching regarding the unacceptable levels of violence in our society, especially toward women. There has been much debate about the root causes of what brought us to this unhappy place: is it our flawed education system, the lack of hands-on parenting, spiraling youth unemployment or simply the high numbers of absent father households?   Perhaps it’s a toxic combination of all of the above. South Africa’s social problems are difficult to fathom, and almost impossible to untangle. But while the long-term solutions may be complicated, there are day-to-day interactions we can fix, and should.

If the link between litter and a violent society seems like a long shot, I’d like to take you back to the Broken Windows Theory: first introduced by social scientists James Wilson and George Kelling in 1982. They used the following example to illustrate their point:

“Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside. Or consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or even break into cars”.

In essence, the theory surmises that maintaining and monitoring urban environments in a well-ordered condition can stop further vandalism and escalation into more serious crime.

New York City was the first metropolis to implement this theory on a large scale. The residing mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, along with Police Chief Bill Bratton, used the broken windows theory in their “zero tolerance” approach to cleaning up the city in the 1990s. After an aggressive campaign to clean up graffiti in the city’s subway system, they found that petty crime decreased.

Since then, many cities around the world have tried to replicate this campaign, Johannesburg included – but we don’t seem to have been as successful. Perhaps we need to become as obsessive as Singapore, whose authorities don’t even allow its citizens to chew gum in public.

Banning chewing gum might seem overzealous but it does support the Broken Windows Theory. The Singapore government banned chewing gum in 1992 after gum was used to shut down the country’s public transportation system. Someone stuck a piece of gum on the train’s sensor doors and brought the entire system to a halt.  Chewing gum was also costing the government vast sums of money to remove and clean, as well as damaging the cleaning equipment itself. Vandals were leaving used gum in keyholes and on elevator buttons, creating additional challenges in maintaining the efficiency and cleanliness of the city. Viewed in context, the ban doesn’t sound that unreasonable any more.

I’d probably support a chewing gum ban. Litter irks me, but discarded chewing gum sends me into an apoplectic rage – especially when someone spits it into a public urinal. If litter speaks volumes about a society, then spitting gum into a urinal is the personification of disrespect. That man (it is a men’s urinal) obviously has no empathy whatsoever with whoever’s job it is to clean toilets. Cleaning toilets is not exactly anyone’s dream job, but having to pick out, not only someone’s discarded chewing gum, but gum that has been repeatedly pissed on, is just adding insult to injury. That man’s level’s of societal respect concerns me deeply, especially as most cleaners are women. Linking a discarded piece of chewing gum to abuse against women and our propensity for violence may seem far-fetched, but I assure you, I can join the dots.

Would you be happy to pick this out?

Would you be happy to pick this out?

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  1. […] could not agree more with Dion Chang’s piece on litter; “What a piece of bubble gum says about our levels of respect“. “If this happens while I’m walking in the street, I at least get the warped […]



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