Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Quest for Agora through Costco

This week I received an email from someone who read my response in the Costco Connections magazine debate: "Should we get tougher on graffiti". While the author is clearly annoyed with me, I think he raises concerns we all hear time again regarding graffiti. As such, I thought it might be helpful to post my response to the e-mail.


I thank you for taking time to write about the Costco Magazine debate. I am sure you can appreciate that it is difficult to express a complex idea in under 400 words; I welcome the opportunity to clarify my position for you and address some of the questions you have brought up. For simplicity’s sake, I copy/pasted your question before my responses.

“What about people who don't want spray paint on their property? The only right they have is to pay time and money to clean up the mess?”

Of course you have a right to not have spray paint on your property. I appreciate you like your fences and walls bare. I would never want you to be forced to have paint on it, nor did my response suggest that I would.

Given the tone of your letter, I will assume there is little consolation for you to hear me tell you that most of the people who write graffiti agree it is wrong to ‘tag’ people’s homes or cars. Admittedly, in the denser urban populated areas, these lines blur a bit more. One really effective solution that has been adopted by some cities involves the city painting over unwanted graffiti at no expense to the property owners. Many other communities report success stemming repeated ‘tagging’ by incorporating vines and shrubs , or allowing community groups to put a mural on the wall (if it is a particularly tempting area). These are cheap and effective solutions that do not escalate tensions between citizens.

Additionally, I support business’ right to choose to have spray paint on their property. If you read my Costco response closely, you already know I support more autonomy for businesses to determine what goes on the walls of their buildings. Currently, the City of Ottawa makes this a highly complex process so that legitimate graffiti/mural artists can barely make a living because the city makes it hard for them to work legitimately. Painting murals that are wanted by a property owner is certainly not a crime!

Furthermore, as you expressed so well in your letter to me, when you are forced to pay for ‘clean up’, it makes people frustrated and angry. This is a sign of bad policy – it does not resolve the situation and it raises tensions between citizens who are in conflict.

“And what about when tagging is used by gangs to define territory or send a message. Is that art that should be condoned, too?”

There is no ‘gang’ graffiti in Ottawa (or Canada for that matter). Please feel free to refer to the City of Ottawa  webpage for another source on this, if you do not take my word on it. There was a history of this in LA in the 1980s, but this is not the ‘kind’ of writing done in Canada.

“...Or should property owners just suck it up and clean up the mess while society does nothing to stop it?”


Here you do seem to be asking about two very separate things:

First, a concern about actual damage and burdening property owners with that cost (which I did address above – I am confident the city could do this at a much cheaper expense than current ‘eradication’ strategies);

Second, the loss of a secure society. Perhaps what you mean to ask me is: Should the law not protect property owners’ rights? Well, of course they should. But to what extent would you like this law to work? Once a police officer has arrested someone who has tagged your fence, what would you like the law to do? What would be the purpose of the ‘consequence’?

In Canada, the law is focused on ‘righting the wrong’ with the state, not the individual (and you would be right to assume that most people are not happy with how this actually plays out). What many people seem to want is a justice system that makes things right with the victims of said harm. So, perhaps get the individual who did the graffiti paint it over, or pay for the repairs. I think you would find most people would agree with that approach. That is not the kind of laws we put in place at the municipal level, however. That was my point in the response: Current 'get tough' legislation penalizes property owners.

If you are asking me what I think an appropriate legal response to ‘writing illegal graffiti’ should be, I would answer that it should be no more harsh than it need to be, and it should be in line with comparable acts. How should we deal with someone who breaks a window, for example? Similar harm, similar response. We should not have laws that target some groups more harshly because people misunderstand the people or culture they fear.

Of course, you seem to assume people who write graffiti are not property owners and on that point you would be wrong. Many own homes. Many own businesses. That’s why few support the idea of irresponsible tagging (private homes, etc).

Some graffiti writers do purposely break the law for reasons you (and many others) clearly do not appreciate (challenging authority). On my blog, I speak to this more fully. I am clear: Getting arrested is no way to make it in this world. It closes doors of opportunity in ways that are quite devastating. I do NOT condone breaking the law. I also do NOT condone creating more laws without good reason.

“Well, there are lots of us that have higher expectations. How do you balance that with your "effective social policy" and other politically correct terms that condone bad behavior?”

Well, if people think effective social policy is nothing but a politically correct term, then I certainly have my job cut out for me as a professor who teaches people who want to be police officers (among many others)!

So I have this to ask of you – what basis would you like to make policy and law on? Beliefs or evidence? I have higher expectations of those who create and enforce public legislation. I think this speaks volumes of how I am not condoning the “bad behaviour” of politicians who make false promises to voters about how legislation will resolve a problem, without getting a good understanding of the situation first.

The other questions you have asked me were personal, and while I think it will do little to help you gain more knowledge on the complexities of graffiti, I will answer them as best I can.

“Would you mind if someone broke into your home and stole your belongings? After all, nobody was hurt, right? You've got insurance right? You don't mind paying higher premiums, right?”

Yes, I would mind if someone broke into my home. But, if no one was hurt, you are right – it is just stuff. I am quite Zen on this front. I don’t even lock my doors, so my insurance would probably not cover the loss. I would miss my guitar most, of course. But I would get another...

 I know that this is not a mainstream belief, and so I would also never expect the law to bend to my personal feelings on this topic.

Yes, my family home has been broken into in the past. So I can speak from experience.

“There used to be standards for acceptable behaviour but people like you have decided that we don't need standards.”
This sounds like the “society is going to hell in a hand basket” argument.

“People like you (and me)” live longer than ever before. Our children are more educated than at any other time. We are wealthier, and few people become victims of ‘street crime’ (although corporate crime is another matter...). All is not perfect, but it is arguably better standard of living than what most people had during the 1920s, for example. Is there a particular time period that you are nostalgic for? I could probably respond to this question better if it were more specific.

I am curious where you are getting your information that there is a huge decline in “standards”. Certainly mainstream news only reflects those things that rarely happen (that is, after all, what makes it newsworthy!) I am sure you know that the news is not an accurate reflection of how safe we are. It certainly is effective in contributing to us feeling insecure, that is for sure. Making bad laws, however, will not resolve these feelings. Turning the TV off might.

“As long as your studies and statistics "prove" something that is good enough for you, then too bad for the rest of us, huh?”

Firstly, I did not make any mention to statistics in my Costco piece. If you wish to take the time to read my blog, though, you may be interested in an article I wrote that is quite critical about people who try to use statistics to make claims about how programs increase/decrease crime.

Secondly, I teach research methods at the university level, which includes statistics. And as such, I would be the first person to tell you that statistics do not “prove” anything, particularly when they are related to social interactions and human behaviour. Statistics can tell us about trends, perhaps, but they are more an indicator that “something” is happening (or not), but really that is all. People are not amoeba; we have free will (thank goodness!)

It sounds like you are frustrated with public policy driven by individual’s preferences or ‘beliefs’ about the real world. On this point, you and I could not be closer. I wish to see public policy that actually DOES what it says it is going to do, not laws created because someone ‘feels’ like it might work, or will make a good sound bite on the evening news. I am merely wondering why municipalities keep investing so much money on maintaining a policy that does not work. “People like me” are simply demanding that politicians address the concerns of ALL their citizens, and find solutions that make the conditions of living together as respectful as possible.

In closing, I wish to return to the opening line of your email.

“Honestly, it’s sad to see someone “in the know” who has literally given up.”

There is no need to be sad. I have not given up, I have only just begun! I am very fortunate to teach about 1000 young people each year in my classes. They remind me how important it is to have a government in place that is accountable to its people, that respects the rights of ALL its citizens (including property owners and non-owners alike, among many others), and does not attempt to overstep its mandate. I have four children who do amazing things in this world, and remind me how good it is to live in a country where we can be critical of our government without unjust persecution. Through my research I have gotten to know hundreds of young people outside the university system who do amazing things despite seemingly impossible odds.

As someone who is on the front lines, I can assure you the future is in good hands.

Many thanks again for taking the time to write to me about your concerns.

Kindest regards,

Deborah Landry

2 comments:

  1. Deborah: Your graceful reply only adds to one of the most intelligent responses Iv'e had the pleasure of reading. I remember a day when many members of society, both public and private figures, understood and vigilantly maintained the simple truisms you outlined in your response. I miss the town hall meetings Iv'e attended, where these issues were fleshed out within the context of the communities that were impacted by them, and not just by objective non combatants as it were. Iv'e been privileged to hear sage wisdom, and see nods of agreement from the majority stakeholders, on very contentious and divisive social issues. As much as I appreciate the net forums and blogs for quickly and efficiently getting the words across, I suspect that the contemplative nature of face to face dialogue by stakeholders is the missing element in finding consensus on otherwise pretty simple to fix issues. I hope the other readers will hear the spirit of respect that you are attempting to build among everyone involved. I for one found you to be statesman like, or rather state-womanly.
    Thank you.
    Greg Gamble
    Greenbank Ont.

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  2. Thank you so much for your kind praise!

    I agree with your position on the benefits of 'face to face' interactions as well. It is my hope to initiate some of these discussions with our community stakeholders across Canada in the next few years.

    As you say, it is a powerful thing to see people -formerly divided- come together to participate in civic discourse and positive action.

    Again, many thanks for your support.

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