Discipline on the Bus

Here I am on the BART train in Oakland looking at a warning that reads, “Federal law requires these seats be made available to seniors and persons with disabilities.” Darn it! Here comes an elderly lady tottering through the door on a cane. I sure would like to say, “Buzz off, grandma, I got here first.” But oh well, since federal law requires it, I guess I'll have to give her the seat.

A couple of days ago I was on a bus that had another sign, warning me that assault and battery of the vehicle operator is punishable by a fine of $10,000 and up to three years in prison. Curses – foiled again! Just at the moment when I thought it might be nice to assault and hopefully batter the driver, I was forced to consider the consequences. Weighing the pleasure of beating him up against the penalty of three years in prison, I reluctantly decided to restrain myself.

I will admit that even if the penalty had been only six months' imprisonment, I still would have exercised restraint. But I recognize that some people are more wicked than I am, so they need a bigger deterrent.

I hope the absurdity of these signs, and the theory of human choice-making that they represent, is obvious. Yet they litter our public spaces, poisoning the psychic environment with several subliminal messages:

(1) You are not to be trusted. You must be threatened and coerced to behave civilly.

(2) There are dangerous people around you. Thankfully, you are protected from them by the presence of authority in every corner of public space.

(3) The possibility of punishment is never far away.

I'd like therefore to propose some alternatives to these warning signs, that serve the function of reminding us of the humanity and the needs of those who, in a mass society like our own, might otherwise fall victim to our lapses of attention.

Instead of “Federal law requires...” how about, “Common decency and compassion invite you to make these seats available to seniors and people with disabilities,” or, “Let's remind each other to give these seats to seniors and persons with disabilities.”

Instead of threatening a prison sentence for assaulting the bus driver, how about a sign that says, “Having a bad day? Maybe the driver is too. Be kind. We're all in this together.”

Such signts would contribute to a psychic climate that is uplifting rather than oppressive. The subtext is the opposite of the above. They say:

(1) We believe in your desire to do the right thing, and trust that you will welcome this reminder.

(2) You are surrounded by other people who can be similarly trusted. We care about each other. .

(3) We are safe. Rather than an omnipresent disciplinary authority, we cultivate a kind of inner discipline: the habit of thinking of others.

In case it is not already obvious, let me address an objection to my reasoning: “Sure, you, Charles Eisenstein, don't require punishments and threats to enforce pro-social behavior, but unfortunately not everyone is such a good person. Some people only understand the language of force.” In other words, we need the presence of stern authority in every corner of public life to protect the good people from the bad people.

In fact, outside a very narrow range of circumstances, the practical effectiveness of deterrence is highly questionable, poorly supported by research data, and exaggerated in the conventional mind by the ideology of the separate self. If we are separate individuals making rational self-interested decisions (as standard economic theory suggests), then yes, a social system based on measurable threats and incentives is sensible. But if we are not separate individuals with varying dispositional tendencies toward good or evil, but are rather the products of our circumstances; if the self is a social function, a nexus of relationship, then matters are not so simple.

The ungovernable bad person is mostly a bogeyman, a receptacle for the projection of our fears. It is no surprise that this bogeyman takes the form of an “other,” in whatever guise racial and class prejudices offer. Underneath the objection that “Charles Eisenstein doesn't need coercion to refrain from assaulting the bus driver, but other, violent, people might,” is very likely an image of one of those “other” people that likely conforms to one or another class or race stereotype. The stern warning signs reassure that fearful part of us that someone is protecting us from those Others.

We live in a system that, through this othering, creates the very conditions from which we seek to protect ourselves. (By “we” here, I am talking about the dominant culture, with which most of us are in some way complicit.) Paternalistic, authoritarian signage is a small but symptomatic part of the creation of the conditions for violence, selfishness, and suspicion.

When I travel, I like to mentally rewrite such signs from a place of trust in the basic decency of human beings, albeit a decency that needs a bit of social maintenance. For example, instead of “No littering – $300 fine,” which communicates “The reason not to litter is that you will have to pay a fine,” it could be, “Keep America beautiful: do not litter.”

What about the people who do it anyway? For one thing, they will probably do it anyway if there is a punishment too. The kind of person who beats up a bus driver is not likely, in his moment of rage, to restrain himself out of prudence about consequences. Yet there might be another reason, besides deterrence, to explore what the “higher incarnation” of punishment might be. I could take the form of a ritual to bring humility. It is not the kind of humiliation that seeks to establish dominance, but rather the kind that communicates, “We see what you did, and we do not approve.” I suppose that the boundary between that and the dominance of the group over the indivual may be blurry. Anyway, the “ritual” I speak of is visible already in many of the accoutrements of criminal “justice” – the jail outfits, the shackles, and so forth. Since we are indeed socially constructed beings, rejection by the group is a strong deterrent to repeat offenses, acting on the very root of identity.

Much more could be and has been said about what will replace punishment in a system of real justice that restores, as best as possible, the injured party to her health and dignity, and the perpetrator to her responsibility and compassion. It will come from the understanding that I, too, in a moment of forgetfulness might not remember to think on behalf of an old or injured person who needs a seat; that I too, in a moment of emotional pain and rage, might channel it onto a bus driver. This isn't about tolerating such behavior. It is about reminding each other who we really are.

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