This may be a controversial topic but today I’ve discovered a fascinating concept.
Lately, I’ve been reading “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell, who explains how little things can make a big difference. In his book, he describes the “Broken Window Theory” which states that visible signs of crime, anti-social behaviour, and civil disorder create an urban environment that encourages further crime and disorder, including serious crimes.
The idea is that, by eliminating visual signs of vandalism and crime, you can create an epidemic of changing values due to an improved environment.
Here is an extract from his book:
“If a window is broken and left unprepared, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge. Soon, more windows will be broken, and the sense of anarchy will spread from the building to the street on which it faces, sending a signal that anything goes. In a city, relatively minor problems like graffiti, public disorder, and aggressive panhandling, are equivalent of broken windows, invitations to more serious crimes.”
-Malcolm Gladwell (Referring to the concept derived by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling)
For example, someone who is down and out, struggling for money, may see someone else collecting money from begging at the traffic lights, so therefore he/she will try and do the same to replicate the results. On the other hand, by seeing someone like a taxi driver defying the traffic laws and overtaking traffic, might encourage someone else to follow suit and commit an infringement he would never usually think of doing.
It’s this attitude of “He can do it so why can’t I” which actually demoralises human beings and causes them to act out of character, simply because their environment has changed.
As a South African citizen, I can see how this theory is true. The country has allowed basic misbehaviour to get out of control to the point that the entire country looks as if it is in dismay.
If you consider that if begging were illegal, more people would be forced to look for other opportunities to better their lifestyle instead of expecting others to fix their problem.
When I last arrived back into South Africa after travelling abroad for several months, the first South African I met was a young man in the airport bathroom holding a mop in hand and insisted on me giving him a tip for simply letting me do my business. It immediately felt like arriving in a poverty-stricken country. I felt quite uncomfortable. The fact is that I might have been more inclined to help him if the bathroom was actually clean and he simply said hello with a nice smile instead of asking me for money in a private bathroom.
Don’t get me wrong, I do my role to help the less fortunate more than you might think. I spend hundreds of my own money every week to distribute food and assistance to the less fortunate, but I make sure that it goes to people that can’t help themselves. People with disability or disease.
I appreciate men and woman that try to sell handicrafts that they have painstakingly spent hours making themselves, but I don’t condone healthy young men who are more than capable of looking after themselves, wasting countless hours sitting at traffic lights waiting for handouts while they hide the bottles of alcohol under a blanket next to them or cut holes in a fresh new sweater you gave them last week, to give the illusion that no-one is helping them.
Whenever I do help someone in need, I leave them with a simple instruction to spread the love.
I want to see my home country to thrive. It’s a country that has the potential to be the richest in the world, but it has become an environment which induces fear and failure.
If we focused our attention on stopping the small things like vandalism, littering and urinating in public, making examples of people that don’t obey the rules, then we can eventually stop putting thicker bars on the windows and “crime can be more than understood. It can be prevented.” Says Malcolm Gladwell.
Studies have shown that by putting children from good families and good lifestyles into an environment of chaos, can cause the child to create a tremendous phycological change. If we could create an environment where we encourage good behaviour and tidy up the world around us so that we don’t seem to be living in the midst of chaos, then we can dramatically increase the possibility of changing criminal behaviour.
A country like Singapore was transformed less than a century ago because it decided to clamp down on misdemeanours. Now you can’t even take chewing gum into the country because they know that once someone has finished with it, it’s likely to end up stuck to the floor somewhere or even decorating public furniture, so they banned it. And begging? Also banned. In fact, if you so much as drop a tissue or spit on the sidewalk, someone will chase you down and you could be faced with a hefty fine.
In the last 50 years, Singapore is now one of the largest international business hubs in the world and one of the cleanest countries I’ve ever been to.
It’s obviously a lot easier said than done, and it also has to start from the top, but wouldn’t it be a better world for everyone if we could create a safe and secure environment, where even troubled kids from unsettled homes can feel like they can make a difference, instead of following the actions of the criminals they are surrounded by and believing that its okay to litter because what difference would it make if the place is already so dirty?
It all starts with a simple change and it can begin with something as easy as a smile and a small gesture. Fix the broken windows in the world before they become an epidemic. Change the environment that we live in and you’ll change the way people live inside of it.