A broken window into civilization

Kathleen Parker
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Posted: Dec 01, 2004 12:00 AM

As we marveled over the basketball brawl between players and spectators at a recent Indiana Pacers-Detroit Pistons game - and then the fourth-quarter melee between Clemson University and University of South Carolina football players - I kept thinking, "broken windows."

The "broken windows" theory of social breakdown goes more or less like this: If a broken window in a building is left unrepaired, pretty soon all the windows are broken, and so goes the neighborhood.

By now familiar, the theory was conceived and popularized by Harvard professors James Q. Wilson and George Kelling. They wrote in the March 1982 edition of The Atlantic Monthly that if broken windows are not repaired, "the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it's unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside."

"Or consider a sidewalk," wrote Wilson and Kelling. "Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or breaking into cars."

The authors determined that the way to prevent vandalism - and thus more serious forms of crime and urban deterioration - was to fix the broken windows. To clean up the sidewalk. To fix the small things before they become big things.

As mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani put the theory to work by strictly enforcing laws against small crimes - subway fare evasion, for example - and major crime dropped significantly.

Wilson and Kelling explained that the reason one broken window leads to more broken windows is because human beings respond to these signs as an absence of caring or of anyone being in charge. In the absence of authority - the symbolic adult - children tend to behave badly. Order breaks down. Civility disintegrates.

Given which, it seems reasonable to extend the broken windows theory to the larger culture. Why wouldn't a similar lack of adult attention to standards of human civility eventually result in the cultural equivalent of broken windows?

It does not seem a stretch that what we witnessed on the basketball court and the football field is merely the inevitable conclusion of the general coarsening we've witnessed in the culture the past few decades.

Where Wilson and Kelling considered broken buildings and littered sidewalks, we might consider a profane and sex-saturated culture in which coarse language, base human interaction and incivility are no longer the exception but the norm.

In such a climate, shock jocks and post-pubescent television producers think scatological humor and titillation on public airwaves is a hoot. It's knee-slappingly funny during family time - the more and better to offend.

Setting aside for a moment the utter banality of what passes for entertainment - and the yawn that has replaced contempt amid extreme familiarity - such cultural coarsening nourishes the impression that nothing matters and no one cares.

Parents struggling to raise decent, well-mannered children in this swamp know, of course, that everything matters. Even the words we use. When we ignore the little niceties - tolerating coarse language or behavior in public - we invite larger fractures in civilization, which is a fragile facade after all.

Talking like this, of course, will get you labeled a rube, a prude, or worse - a censor. What's with profanity, anyway? They're only words. Comedian George Carlin, who is funny without the seven words he built his most famous skit around, made us feel silly for caring about language.

As for the relentless fascination with variations on ye olde bump 'n' grind, confusion sets in. What's wrong with sex? Not one thing - in the right place and time. But the courtesy of observing certain rules of decorum - previously known as manners and once taken for granted - is passe. Soooooo whenever.

It is considered sophisticated, on the other hand, to ridicule America's "obsession" with such things as Janet Jackson's nipple, famously revealed during her "wardrobe malfunction" in the Super Bowl halftime show. It was just a breast, for heaven's sake! What's the biggie?

Nipple-schmipple. No it wasn't just a breast. A mother nursing her infant is just a breast. Janet and Justin's little prank was a deliberate act of juvenile defiance, a self-indulgent, narcissistic display by emotionally stunted adults playing fast and loose with the rules for their own amusement. It was a middle finger shoved in Middle America's face.

The point then, as now, is only this. Either we believe in and honor community standards or we don't. Ignoring simple standards, constructed to protect and advance civilization, is like ignoring the broken window. In time, the culture - like the neighborhood - goes to you-know-where in a handbasket.