This night, with finals looming, almost all of the computer stations were occupied. It looked like every UA student, except those who were getting busted for underage drinking a few blocks away, was there. Because a particular program wouldn't work on our computer at home, my daughter had to go to the UA to work on some engineering project. I went along just in case she needed my help. (She didn't.) As she pounded away on the keyboard, I sat at one of the few tables in the entire room that didn't have a computer on it. I opened the book I had brought along and started to read.
(Note: You can get some seriously weird looks from young people these days if you sit in a library and actually read a book.)
After a few minutes, a young woman in her late teens walked in and sat down at the computer right next to where I was sitting. She was drinking an iced coffee concoction of some sort and eating some misnamed "health" bar that looked like compost and probably tasted like feet. And, all the while, she was talking on her phone. Not just talking; loud talking.
Usually, in those situations, I just start reading aloud until the phone dolt gets the idea. But this was a library, so I faced a dilemma. I glared at her until she looked over and asked, "Do you have a problem?"
I whispered back, "Yes, I'm trying to figure out how you got admitted to a major university when you don't even know how to act in a library."
She asked what I was talking about. and I said, "You're yapping on the phone at 90 decibels, plus you're eating and drinking at a computer in a building where you're not supposed to have food or drink."
She seemed honestly perplexed as she said, "So? More than half the people in here are doing that."
I looked around--and she was right. Nevertheless, I pressed on. "Does that mean that if I took a show of hands and 51 percent of the people in here said that it was OK for me to piss in your over-priced coffee, that would be OK?"
She looked as though she wanted to argue, but having never taken the (apparently surgically attached) phone away from her ear, she became distracted by something the person on the other end of the electronic conversation said, so she got up and left. They had probably told her about some cool drunken party that was just down the street.
When Rudy Guiliani--who will never be one of my favorite people--took office as mayor of New York City, he made a pledge to cut crime. Instead of going after crime lords and drug dealers, he cracked down on shoplifters, graffiti morons and cheap suckers who hop over the turnstiles to sneak onto the subway. Critics charged he was trying to pump up his stats by sending a bunch of petty criminals to jail for a few weeks or months each, but a funny thing happened: Major crime went down at the same time, by a substantial margin.
Sociologists argued over the causes of the phenomenon, but it seems reasonable that it could be only one of two things: Either a lot of the people who got popped for the smaller crimes had also been doing the bigger crimes, so both types of crime went down during their incarceration, or (if, indeed, they were a separate group) the "big" criminals saw the crackdown on the petty crimes and perhaps realized that the potential downside to their activity had become too great a risk.
The philosophical argument between "don't sweat the small stuff" and "God is in the details" is an interesting one. I tend to believe that looking the other way at minor offenses does indeed lead to an environment of irresponsibility. It doesn't take all six degrees of separation to link someone who disregards rules in college to one who thinks they can make up their own rules in the business world.
Is the person who eats and drinks in the library (where that activity is forbidden) guaranteed to grow up to be a corporate thief? Of course not. But she is far more likely to do so than the kid who sees the "No Food or Drink in Library" sign and actually obeys it.
I actually don't care if people eat or drink in the library. (As for cell phones, I hope that the pay-phone industry goes ahead with their ultra-secret plan to explode a magnetic-pulse device in the atmosphere, rendering all cell phones useless for the next 50 years.) However, if the library folks think all of the aforementioned behavior is OK, they should just say so. The problem comes when you set rules and then don't even try to enforce them. That leads to a cynicism where people who follow the rules feel like chumps and those who break the rules start believing that they can get away with just about anything, because nobody's going to stop them.
The next day on the news, they had some guy who had been at the drunken party. He said, "I know underage drinking is illegal and everything, but why did they have to send so many cops?" Why, you drunken imbecile, they arrested 74 underage drinkers! Yeah, he continued, "but if they hadn't sent so many cops, not that many people would have been arrested."
You just know that guy is pre-law.