Wednesday, 31 July 2013

For a law against meanness

The other day, I realised there was a massive contradiction in my worldview. On the one hand, I'm generally opposed to mindless free speech or tolerating other kinds of behaviour that are detrimental to people and to society. I've written about that elsewhere on this blog.

On the other hand, I believe that people should be able to try to become the kinds of people they would like to be, and pursue the interests and kinds of behaviour that seems most appealing to them - free from any interference from society. I think free speech in excess is a bad thing, yet the idea that social interference in people being who they want to be is anathema to me.

For about 50 seconds after I realised this I plummeted into a mental crisis. Then I worked out the solution, which is one of those things that to start with seems exciting but which you soon realise is relatively straightforward. My dilemma can be restated in terms of two different ways in which "freedom" (and I hate using the word like this) can be restricted:

1. Freedom restricted by a democratic government.

2. Freedom restricted by ephemeral or unspoken social conventions and disapproval.

What is the key difference here? For me, the key difference is that when a government restricts your actions, they tell you specifically and in detail exactly how they are doing so. And they take a long time with much careful deliberation before they pass the laws that restrict you. To me, this seems entirely fair. It's still an individual being restricted by society (after all, the government is technically supposed to enact the will of society), but it's restriction in a clear way that everyone has agreed one via the democratic process. If the people vote for a government which then declares that it's not OK to make a speech inciting violence, then this is a perfectly valid limitation on freedom of speech. Right?

At the other extreme, we have peer pressure. And I don't mean 16-year-olds explicitly taunting each other into smoking. I'm taking about the deeply entrenched conventions and widely held opinions of society that prevent people from doing things they like and being their own person. Sexism and racism are largely enacted via such restrictions. No (modern western) government would explicitly forbid women from, say, wearing gender a-typical clothes or pursuing a-typical careers. Society does this, mostly unconsciously, by the way it treats the different sexes. Or by the way it treats other sub-sections of itself.

For me, this kind of restriction on freedom is entirely unfair, because no one has actually agreed to it. And when prompted, most people may even disagree with it. It's never made clear exactly what is forbidden (or rather, it's rarely made explicit - it's often made clear to those who suffer), nor why it is forbidden, because in most cases there is no reasonable justification.

But there's no reason why such social restrictions couldn't become just laws, if the government passed them. After all, there are plenty of unspoken social conventions that do a great deal of good. The codes of politeness being some of my favourite. Doing things that are mean and unkind to other people is normally met with social disapproval - such actions are forbidden in the kind of way I've described above. But these are actions that should be forbidden, because there's a very good reason to forbid them. The world is a better place without them.

So why doesn't the government pass a law against meanness?

I'm serious. The government should be used as a tool for improving people's lives. If democratic, it does and should have every right to restrict the freedoms of the people it governs by passing laws to prohibit or encourage certain actions.

But we've been too unimaginative in the kinds of things we target with our laws. Consider theft. We have a law against theft because when someone steals your stuff, it makes your life a bit worse. The bigger the theft, the worse your life suffers from it, and the bigger the penalty under the law. This is a sensible system, surely, and very just. So why don't we have a similar system for other actions that also make your life worse.

Consider bullying. Years of psychological abuse, often much more harmful than any burglary, can be met with discipline from school teachers or disapproval from peers - but not the police or the courts. Why doesn't the government ban bullying explicitly in a law? After all, it bans physical bullying, in that beating people up is illegal. But emotional bullying is usually much worse and longer lasting. There should be a law against it, so we can all be clear about where the line is between something that we've all openly agreed to prohibit for good reasons, and those things that we implicitly forbid with no good reason. The clearer this line is, the more people will feel confidant about defying the implicit side while abiding by the explicit side.

Of course, many of the laws against meanness that you might want to pass would be woefully hard to enforce. But that's a poor reason not to try. We have laws against other things that are very hard to enforce (rape being a tragic example), because we all believe that these things are bad enough that they deserve laws, so we can all be clear that they're not OK. It's time to do the same for everything else that's not OK but that doesn't yet have a law.

People may argue against me by saying it's a bit harsh to get a criminal record and a sentence for just being a little bit mean once or twice - but I reply that the law doesn't have to be a harsh one! It just has to exist, to encode our disapproval. The penalty for meanness can be as small as we deem appropriate. I suggest a light tap on the knuckles with a ruler would be fine, or perhaps a sternly worded letter from the Queen.

Who's with me?