Monday, April 09, 2007

Antisocial Behaviour

The British Parliament recently passed the Anti-Social Behaviour Act, which, along with an extensive system of public surveillance (including talking cameras), is intended to give police and private citizens alike the chance to cut down on public nuisances and general unpleasantness. ("So long as they don't do it in the street and scare the horses...")

The act triggers some of my libertarian alarms. While I think those alarms probably are partially valid, I also have to admit that England is far from a police state and that the act probably isn't going to usher in the reign of Big Brother. In fact, in Chicago, having a bunch of CCTV cameras everywhere lately has turned out to be useful to people complaining of police brutality.

So, rather than concentrate on civil liberties, I want to stress a point as relevant in the US as it is in the UK. In a list that intriguingly confuses behaviors with people and objects, the BBC says that the British government has stressed a number of types of antisocial behaviors: "local troublemakers and intimidating groups, nuisance neighbours, crack houses, air weapons and imitation firearms, graffiti and vandalism, fly-tipping and litter, beggars, abandoned cars, [and] trespassers."

To me, "beggars" stands out in this list. The other behaviors--intimidation, stereo-cranking, vandalism, dumping litter on people's lawns, trespassing--come from criminality or boorishness. People who care about other people won't do them. Begging, notwithstanding the urban legends of beggars hopping into BMW's at the end of the day, usually comes from some combination of homelessness, desperation, substance abuse, and mental illness. Most of the people who do it don't have a lot of other options. I've always been amazed that for most people (often myself included), the problem of homelessness isn't that some other human doesn't have food, shelter, and access to the occasional shower but rather that they're asking passersby for a buck. The problem isn't that they're starving to death, it's that they're making us notice.

Yeah, people begging on the street are annoying a lot of the time. But so are smug bastards in their luxury cars, guys who put hands on their girlfriends to steer them down the sidewalk, and shrill reactionaries who write letters to the editor about furriners, faggots, and those double-dreaded furrin faggots. But being annoying shouldn't be the same as being illegal.

More to the point, all these behaviors--begging, flaunting, patronizing, and fearing--aren't antisocial. They're profoundly social in that they come out of values and systems that constitute our society. Begging in particular comes directly from a social and economic system that thinks 5% unemployment provides a healthy downward pressure on wages and (in America) that thinks crazy people who can't pay for psychiatric care don't deserve that care anyway. We don't resent beggars because they interfere with our social system but rather because they remind us how that system works.

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