On January 1 the News-Gazette reported on some new laws the Illinois legislature recently passed, including one that decriminalizes creeping over the white line at a red light, and another that makes it illegal to own a monkey. Making laws has become our favorite way of putting to action our desire to “do something” to improve our world.
I recently watched a video in which African American social activist Van Jones shared his observation that people, especially white people, have a reflexive tendency to want to “do something” to repair social ills. I’m not sure it’s just white folk who do it, but I share Jones’ fascination with this tendency, and I want to understand it better. Maybe it has to do with the our awareness that moral responsibility should be understood beyond a narrow individualistic perspective. “We” must do something because somehow we share responsibility for what’s wrong. Whatever motivates our impulse to pave the road to Utopia with legislative documents, some examination of the effectiveness of regulatory asphalt might be useful.
As a psychology major at the University of Illinois in the mid 70s, I did research in a rat lab. Behaviorism, led by B.F. Skinner was the cult de jour at the time. It taught us that human behavior could be explained by understanding to what positive or negative consequences our choices lead. I’m not proud to confess that my research involved giving the rats a mild electrical shock to shape their behavior. Like Colonel Sanders in the Gary Larson cartoon approaching the Pearly Gates only to see a chicken deciding who gets in, I shudder to think of a rodent in that gate-keeper role.
One does not need to be a repentant rat shocker to believe that expected outcomes shape our choices. So, we can applaud our Springfield legislators for their efforts to make laws we hope will lessen the chances that people will do things that cause harm to other people, or monkeys. Or kittens, as I learned after recently being deemed fit to acquire a kitten after the Animal Shelter had completed a background check on my criminal record. The report showed I had broken no laws against animal cruelty. I did not tell them what I did to rats in college. But let’s be fair; cats don’t have such a stellar record with rodents either.
Forgive me if my appreciation for lawmaking in Springfield is tempered by a smattering of pragmatic skepticism. How much do the new laws, or any laws, really affect the choices people make? I’m not the first one to be amused by examples of ridiculous laws, regulations and warnings. Here are some of my favorite examples of the efforts of well meaning social guardians.
Printed on a motorcycle helmet-mounted rear view mirror: “Remember, objects in the mirror are actually behind you”
Or this label on a portable baby stroller: “Caution: Remove infant before folding stroller for storage”
And my personal favorite: “Do not attempt to stop the blade with your hand,” found in the manual for a Swedish chainsaw.
Do frivolous warnings, regulations and laws have any function besides providing us with amusement? Unfortunately, I think they do. Excessive and unnecessary warnings and laws can immunize us against the beneficial effect of legitimate legislative social restraints. When too many of our choices are potentially the subject of state sanctioned legal consequences, do we become inoculated against responsiveness to meaningful and effective legislation? Maybe when we are warned that everything is dangerous or consequential, we decide that nothing is dangerous or consequential.
I remember learning about some teen-aged boys who died when they snowboarded down a dangerous mountain trail at a ski resort. Despite the conspicuous warning sign at the top of the trail, the boys made the choice to head down the trail where they tragically learned of the real danger they were in. As I listened to a commentator struggling to understand how these intelligent boys could ignore such a clear warning sign, something occurred to me. Of course they ignored the sign. Throughout their short lives these kids had been exposed to countless meaningless warnings. They had lost their ability to be responsive to a legitimate warning. Maybe they remembered laws passed when they were younger that prohibited including small toys in McDonald’s’ Happy Meals because of the choking hazard. Maybe, in spite of their youth, they thought, “That’s stupid, I knew better than to try to swallow a toy.” And they knew better than to believe that putting on a Superman cape could actually make them able to fly without the well-intentioned warning label attached to the cape: “Wearing cape does not enable flight”.
Sure, we’re talking silliness here, but if we have even a modicum of concern about doing what we can to limit actual harmful acts of criminality, we must give some thought to why we continue to pass more and more laws each year. It is certainly a legitimate function of the state to establish a legal code that informs our criminal justice system and sets a standard that represents what we collectively decide is unacceptable behavior. But laws alone cannot establish within us the moral compass that guides our choices.
Van Jones is right; we want to “do something.” But if making new laws only serves as a collective moral sneeze that relieves our built up progressive angst, then we’re in danger of thinking our work is done once we’ve passed a law. But it’s not. The work that works happens as we relate to each other in ways that remind us of that capacity we each have to choose good. As we set an example for those at risk of choosing evil. As we commit ourselves to create a social environment that empowers people to treat each other with respect.
Note to legislators: I didn’t want a pet monkey anyway, and so far I’m taking good care of Lola the kitten.