Public Accounting

On a trip to Germany years ago, I was chastised by complete strangers while riding the subway on two separate occasions. The first time, I was drinking a beer (legal in public but not legal on the train apparently) and the second time, I had my feet up on the seat opposite (not quite illegal but certainly rude). In both instances, a passenger saw my wrongdoing and called me out. For my part, I corrected my aberrant behavior and that was it. I could have ridden the subway all day and night without encountering a police officer to punish me but, as it was, I learned an easy lesson without receiving a ticket or using up city government resources.  That is the power of public accountability.

We each have our own moral compass, but the fact is that we are less likely to break rules when there is a greater chance of being caught. “Being caught” isn’t limited to legal consequences, disapproval from peers or even strangers can weigh heavily. Within a social group, certain rules guide and govern behavior in what I call “Friend Culture,” which may include calling someone out for not wearing a seatbelt, or for saying an insensitive slur. Friend Culture is both enormously effective and highly pervasive. These rules are fluid, easily changing over time according to wider social customs, changing values of the individuals present, and even who is in the room. In any case, deviant behavior is restricted by a social network rather than by a uniformed officer. Imagine the power of a strong Friend Culture expanded on a public scale to enforce social rules. That, in effect, is what Germany has and America lacks.

Here in the United States, we run far lower risk of being called to answer for illegal behavior because we leave that task to those in power. Without the general populace to curb our behavior, we are less likely to be caught, likely to bend the rules, and less likely to identify with the social value of the rules.

The traditional American approach is to tell people what not to do rather than to ask them to help make sure that others don’t. This is a minor but significant distinction: in one case, the people are assumed to be disobedient, in the other, they are presumed honest.

Take the example of a writer who works each day in a cafe. Every time she gets up to use the bathroom or make a phone call, she leaves her items unattended, knowing they may be stolen. Often, someone in her situation will ask the person sitting closest to them to guard their belongings for a moment. Why should that randomly selected anonymous person be any less likely to steal than anyone else? At a basic level, they are not. But once they are asked to protect something, they are presumed innocent, and will likely rise to the challenge. In other words, trusting someone can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Government campaigns to reduce drunk driving offer a great example of the spectrum of approaches. The most direct method is to ask, tell or warn people not to drive after drinking. Take the current Michigan billboard campaign warning about fines for driving under the influenced (DUI): “A $10,000 Ride Home.” The focus is narrowly focused on avoiding individual financial consequences. Another approach is an appeal to Friend Culture: “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk.” Here, the target could be either the “friend” or the “friend of the friend,” but most people will identify with the law-abiding helpful person rather than the one who needs to be kept off the road. This is the beginning of public accountability on a social level, that you already know not to drive drunk is implied, that you can help others be safe is suggested. Finally, the next level, an example of true social enforcement came on a radio PSA that I heard recently. The message asked people to “pull over and report” any suspected drunk driving, to effectively become an extension of the police force in enforcing laws. This approach broadens its audience’s perspective by not only asking listeners to be responsible for themselves and for their friends, but also for anonymous fellow drivers. Importantly, it also raises the perceived likelihood that drunk drivers getting caught, which can curb drunk driving even if no one ever picks up the phone. After the commercial, I was only half-surprised to find out that I had unknowingly tuned in to a Canadian station. They seem to know something we don’t.

Yet there may be a new trend on the horizon. In 2012, New York City did something utterly new. It passed a law, and in the same breath announced that the police would not enforce it. A government website put it this way:  ”The new law will be enforced mostly by New Yorkers themselves.  If someone refuses to stop smoking … New Yorkers are encouraged to inform a Parks Department employee or a Park Enforcement Officer if one is available.” To my knowledge, this is the first instance in New York, America’s largest city, of a local law being passed and immediately handed down to the people to enact. Los Angeles and San Francisco have passed similar legislation with similar “enforcement” strategies.

When I lived in New York, I regularly practiced public enforcement. I once saw a teenager girl whose boyfriend was grabbing her aggressively by the wrist. She was whining and squirming to escape his grasp and he was grumbling something to her under his breath. I looked him in the eye and said “you need to stop” before walking away. I was afraid of escalating the situation but I could not walk by acting like nothing was wrong. More frequently, I would chastise people for littering, something a police officer certainly doesn’t have time to do and that is well within my power to safely intervene on. I don’t know if my interventions have yielded any difference, but, at minimum I reinforced in myself a standard of behavior, and I may have given people reason to pause before they act again. It is almost impossible to know whether someone’s behavior changes because they see the underlying reason behind it or because they don’t want to be caught but the end result is the way. I once scolded a man for throwing trash on the subway tracks, and was surprised to see him hang his head in genuine embarrassment as we rode the train together stop after stop. I like to think he litters less today because of it.

Speaking up can be uncomfortable, and in some cases even risky, but the consequences of inaction are very real. When you fail to confront anti-social behavior after witnessing it, you are not taking a neutral stance, you are accepting it. Imagine how you would feel if you had observed a drunk person getting into their car, or an over-aggressive boyfriend mistreating a woman, only to find out later it had ended in tragedy. Your guilty conscience would prove this point very concisely- the silent are complicit. This lesson stands at all levels: from mere rudeness (feet on the subway seat) to minor infractions (smoking in public) to true injustice (domestic violence).

There will never be enough police to ticket every person for every illegal act, and that’s ok. The answer is not to enlist more officers, but to call on the power of the public. This was never more true than in today’s America where police forces have been slashed due to budget squeezes at all levels of government. Social Enforcement has the power to correct behavior and prevent it from happening, it can turn us into the people we demand each other to be.

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