Monday, February 27, 2006


Well, for those who were wondering, the pile is gone now. (See below.) It took about a week, but someone hauled it off.

But the existence of the pile launched an interesting debate with the fellow I carpool with, about what I will call "classifications of rudeness", for want of a better term. I was upset at what I perceived as a case of generic public rudeness which I find too common. I see the reasoning as "We don't need anything from him anymore, so there's no point in being nice. Just dump it in his yard and let it be his problem." (I'm going to make what I think is an entirely reasonable assumption: there is no fair reason for someone to dump junk in my yard for a week without even mentioning it to me.)

My friend responded that it's not unlike current politics: "Screw the women, children, gays, minorities, and poor people--I want a tax cut!" I mostly agree with him here, but I do disagree on a minor point: I don't think most people thinking "I want a tax cut!" actually realize that the money comes from somewhere, or that anyone is actually hurt by whatever politics they endorse. It's too abstract in their minds. Tax cuts are just magic, and don't affect anyone else. In that sense, I think it's more like the trash you see dumped by the side of a highway somewhere. I get the sense that the people dumping there don't actually think about the fact that, yes, someone has to clean up this mess eventually. As a semi-public area, I think they see it as belonging to no one at all. If you actually asked these people what would happen to it, they would eventually acknowledge that someone else would indeed have to fix the problem, and I generously assume that at least a few people would be abashed and pick their stuff back up again when they realized what they had done. (Maybe not many, but at least a few. I also think at least a few dumpers would feel guilty if they realized that someone actually has to clean up their mess, even if they still dumped it.)

In the case of dumping stuff on your neighbor's lawn, I think no one can possibly be unaware that they are creating a problem for someone else. (Heck, in that case you can point your finger and say "I'm passing my problem on to him .") Both are good examples of a lack of empathy, which I think is a HUGE social problem, but I do think there is a (small) distinction.

My friend thinks I give too much credit (or too little, depending on how you view it). He thinks people dumping stuff by the highway are perfectly aware that someone else has to clean up the mess, and they just don't care. I don't doubt that there are people who are aware and still dump, but I think for most people it's just magic. Somehow the stuff just disappears without anyone having to do anything. (They wouldn't say that if someone asked, but I think it's the way some people think.)

I'm certainly not arguing that there's no connection between dumping stuff in a neighbor's yard and dumping stuff by the highway. I'm just arguing a slight distinction in how some people decide to do it.

The whole discussion however reminds me of something I saw during the Republican national convention in 1996. I was watching a bit one morning when Newt Gingrich was speaking to a group of college Republicans. He joked that "Conservatism starts when you get your first paycheck from your first job and you see how much money got taken out of it." (Very rough paraphrase; I have no idea the actual wording.) I remember responding immediately: "Yes, Newt. And Liberalism starts when you finally get your nose out of your own paycheck and notice your neighbor's kids are starving." Of course there are intermediate stages. For example, conservatism gets moderated a bit the first time you hit a massive pothole which causes a few thousand dollars damage to your BMW and decide that maybe some government spending on things like roads would be OK after all. But I think Newt characterized his movement perfectly: "Me, me, me." Maybe I should just dump stuff I don't want by the side of the highway. And on an unrelated topic, why do we have to pay so much tax money to road crews?

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