Tuesday, September 15, 2015

On Obnoxiousness and Theft

There are 20 people on the bus. Everyone is quiet, except a teenager playing a vile rap song on his iPod. The other passengers and I are trying to read or talk quietly, but they can’t because of this teenager. Does someone ask the teenager to turn off the iPod? No. Some of us look towards the bus driver, who is trying very hard to do his job during rush hour. We are unsure if we should ask him to assert his authority.

I am a student in a film class. The teacher has announced that no smart phones will be permitted during screenings. About 25 percent of the students ignore this rule, and spend the screening texting, thus distracting from my experience watching the film. The teacher shuts of the film and asks everyone to please put away their iPhones. He puts the film back on. The students continue. Eventually, he starts walking up and down the aisles asking individual students to leave.

I am watching a modern dance performance. During intermission, one of the other audience members got drunk. Now she is shouting and hollering through the performance, screaming, “You rock.” This is a near-religious experience for some people in the audience. During a break in the performance, an usher has been called in and removes her to cheers.

Obnoxiousness is a form of theft.  Each of these people have stolen an experience each of which carries a specific price tag. The bus passenger paid $2.50, not just for transportation, but for a pleasant, safe ride. The student in the film class paid about $1000 in tuition to take the class which offers him the opportunity to watch films on a large screen. The audience at the modern dance performance has paid between $10-$70. 

Each case involves an authority figure who polices the rights of everyone involved to enjoy the benefits of what he paid for, a bus driver, a teacher or an usher. There are circumstances in which authority figures are more likely to act (an usher at an expensive theater) and circumstances in which an authority is less likely to act (a bus driver trying to do his job in a city with many bad drivers.) When any of these authority figures fail to do their jobs, we want a vigilante, a passenger on the bus who shames the teenager, another student who shames the texter, another audience member who shames the drunk. There are problems with vigilantes, as they can’t be controlled.  If the vigilante on the bus decides to grab the student and throw him off the bus, he administers a punishment disproportionate to the crime.

When we rant about obnoxious people to our friends, over dinner, in Facebook posts, we aren’t just angry at obnoxious people and what they have stolen from us. We are angry at the lack of a justice system, and at our powerlessness to administer justice. The state has insulted us by allowing a minority of people to ruin our experience.

And thus authoritarianism is born.  

Democracy requires a tolerance for a certain amount of obnoxiousness, for a certain amount of theft.

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