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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
My Dad used to say this 30 years ago about not taking care of dents, dings and scratches on a car and you will turn it into a clunker. Pretty good analogy.


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 University 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."

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 City, 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?

Applies to culture

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, 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 postpubescent 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.

Not being a prude

Talking like this, of course, will get you labeled a rube, a prude or worse -- a censor. It is considered sophisticated, on the other hand, to ridicule America's "obsession" with such things as Janet Jackson's nipple.

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.

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.

Premium Member
7,143 Posts
broken window theory - I remember learning about this in sociology class in college.

3,690 Posts
I'd read of this with regard to neighborhoods, but had not heard it extended as a metaphor to the general culture. I happen to think the author is right. Was quite taken by the author making it explicit that insisting on a bit of civility and class is not at all being a prude. I couldn't agree more: By the standards of most folks on these forums I'd be more likely to be considered a libertine than a prude, if not an outright slut. But I do see our general culture becoming increasingly trashy - when I catch a glimpse at a friend's house of what passes for TV programming these days, or when I check out "People" magazine in the supermarket line, I'm always rather astonished.

However, as usual when this topic comes up, I do need to make an exception for parents who let their teenage girls be seen on public streets in scanty slutty attire. If I had a daughter, I'd never let her go out looking like that. Two bandaids and a cork just doesn't seem like appropriate attire for a teenage girl. But I do enjoy the scenery.

Gunco Irregular
4,323 Posts
I saw 1st hand the difference in tolerating crime made in NYC. About 18 years ago I went to visit my in-laws in northern N.J. While there we drove in to Manhatten to see a friend. We stopped at a light as soon as we got across the George Washington bridge at 168th street. A guy came up to "wash our windshield" he started cleaning even though I tried to wave him off. As he ran the squeegee over the windshield he was checking us out. He must have felt we fit his customer profile as he went to my wife's window and slipped a business card in that said something like "Cocaine powder and rock' and then there was an address. I was shocked at how commercial and open the drug trade had become since I had left 5 years before. Anyway I went back when my daughter was 14 in 1999-2000. She wanted to go to Times Square as that was where MTV was. I was hesitant to take her there as this area was all peep shows, massage parlors, strip clubs and street dealers in the 1970s. My Father in law assured me that it had all changed. This was during Mayor Guliano's 2nd term and I was amazed. What had been a dangerous, seedy area had become a place you could take your family and feel relatively safe.
When you accept low standards that is what you will attract and someone will always try to push the envelope and try and make them even lower.
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