Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Legislating Politeness: The Chinese Government Takes on a Dysfunctional Culture

In June, 2014, the “Capital Civilization Office” in the Chinese Government began a half-year campaign to “encourage Beijing’s 20 million residents to behave better.”[1] Targets include “people who are noisy, smoke in public, curse at sports events, fail to line up for buses, run red lights, drink while they drive, and drive aggressively.” It seems to me this list could equally apply to Miami, and, at least in terms of driving, to the entire Northeast coastline of the United States. Perhaps urban modernity is to blame, or maybe it is simply the old truism pertaining to the rise and fall of great empires, and thus to cities as well. Chinese history is no stranger to this cycle in the form of a succession of dynasties. Perhaps we would be wise to view the modern city in such terms too.

The Chinese civilization office informed Beijing residents that they are to “dress properly, show grace in speech and manner and say ‘hello,’ ‘thank you’ and ‘sorry’ more often.” Lest this list conger up images of George Orwell’s “Big Brother” figure in the book, 1984, the gargantuan task can be regarded as futile at best. Although Chinese officials were set to utilize “guidance, education and relevant laws and regulations,” including fines, some of the unseemly conduct was at the time not against the law. The underlying problem may be whether arresting cultural decadence is even possible when it has come to characterize the culture in a particular geographical area.

Visiting Beijing a number of years ago, I was immediately struck by the lack of lines, or queues, in public places. It was as if the phenomenon of waiting one’s turn had been lost in a society whose culture stretched back thousands of years. Once the Confucian ethic has been lost, how does a society regain it? A government cannot very easily legislate “building civilization,” though Jan Longbin, deputy director of the Capital Civilization Office cites “immense results” from the Olympic manners campaign six years earlier. “Building civilization is not something that can be done in a single day,” he admits. This may be a tremendous understatement, owing to the self-reinforcing mechanism that is a part of human culture.

Decadence in a society, which is to say, among people who live in the same geographical area, may have a downward, intensifying dynamic that makes any reversal especially arduous. Once a particular assumption, such as that it is ok to ignore the people in line and go directly to the front, reaches a critical mass in terms of the proportion of people having adopted it, they proceed with added confidence in doing so. This second assumptions operates as a kind of protective bubble by giving the individuals the mistaken sense that the primary assumption cannot be wrong. Efforts to force those people to wait in line must contend with this “gravity,” such that when the enforcement ends the original rudeness is likely to re-emerge virtually unscathed.

I have witnessed this descending cycle of cultural decadence through visits to my hometown in Illinois. In spite of the city having been hit hard by the loss of machine-tool plants in the early 1980s and the subsequent increase in crime as well as unemployment, most new comers and visitors such as myself cite the predominate attitude of a high proportion of the local inhabitants are particularly problematic. The sordid demeanor, based on a lack of education—the city being among the least educated in the U.S.—can be characterized as ignorance that cannot be wrong, backed up by whatever authority it thinks it has. 

Ironically, the decadence manifests particularly in the low-level office workers and in the service sectors. Bus drivers, for example, are said to be particularly boorish and even aggressive, and office workers tend to be rigidly obsessed with their tiny policies at the utter detriment of common sense, not to mention plain decency and workability. Neither unemployment nor crime can be blamed for the pretention; rather, the arrogance of ignorance, operating as a sort of self-entitlement as if on stilts during a flood rather than rightfully submerged, seems to be in play as the particularly intractable pathology plaguing the rust-belt city. 

Given the rigid defense mechanisms protecting the dysfunctional mentality that is shared by many there, any civic effort to render the city more livable would almost certainly be fraught with difficulty, if not founder at the outset. As it is, the healthy people—those who recognize the banality so widespread—tend to leave town, if they can, and this self-selection out intensifies the proportion of sickness in the town, which of course pushes any fix even further away. The decadence, or garden-variety crassness, is as though predestined to pursue its own path until the black hole can be distended, or bloated, any further. 

In short, once a squalid mentality, or set of assumptions regarding interpersonal and organizational behavior, sets in in a particular geographical area, the decadence is likely to continue downward until it hits rock-bottom rather than be staved off by government intervention. The tools available to government are no match for the self-reinforcing defense mechanisms of a dysfunctional culture.

For example, even though my banal hometown consistently ranks near the bottom of livable cities in the U.S, local residents in the thick of the pathology (i.e., in utter denial) try to claim that every city has the mentality, which in terms of the rankings is a mathematical impossibility. The denial feeds the arrogance, and the pathogens go on in their ways with a misplaced confidence rather like bloated fish walking on stilts during a flood. When rudeness, or even meanness, as new-comers tend to characterize it, is backed up by the sheer presumptuousness of ignorance that cannot be wrong, a hard shell is formed that may succumb only when the rotten core as reached it, rather than from external efforts at reform. 

However, it does seem theoretically possible that an influx of enough healthy souls can put the indigenous weakness on the defensive, essentially knocking it off its perch in the work-places and in public spaces. In a city of 20 million, such as Beijing, such an intervention would be too huge to be at all realistic; and so it is that as is the case for any great civilization, so too modern cities are subject to the rise and fall of being human, all too human after all. 

[1] For this quote and all others in this essay: Calum MacLeod, “Be More Polite, Beijing Residents Told,” USA Today, June 11, 2014.