The internet has been buzzing for a while about the incident of a woman, Emma West, who, as shown in a video, shouted abuse at people on a tram. It is not exactly clear from the clip what might have led to this, but regardless, it is pretty nasty and a young child sits nearby as she delivers these words. She has, according to reports, been subsequently arrested and charged.
Some people out there in the blogosphere are outraged by this turn of events – that West has been dealt with by the authorities, I mean. Initially, the libertarian in me agreed wholeheartedly, regarding this as an appalling attempt to enforce codes of conduct, including speech, in public places. It does make me deeply uneasy and I wonder whether the law would have come down like a ton of bricks on her had she just left, say, litter on the floor.
The blogger Old Holborn expresses such a view, for instance. Some people seem to suggest, in fact, that people like this woman have been provoked beyond endurance by the impact of mass immigration. Well maybe, although as a supporter of the freedom of people to move from A to B – so long as they do not expect state benefits – I don’t see why immigration should be halted because it offends people like this woman. After all, given that she lives in London, and that it is, thankfully, a cosmopolitan city and one of the financial capitals of the planet, she will have to face up the chance of meeting lots of foreign-looking folk on a fairly regular basis, immigration or not.
I had second thoughts about this business, however, when I considered that under the old Common Law (which libertarians often praise), and other laws too, an offence of “breach of the peace” might apply to this woman’s conduct; such a situation should, perhaps, involve no more than a rap over the knuckles from a magistrate and told to be of good behaviour. The same used to apply to people who got very drunk and disorderly, etc. This would not have anything specifically to do, as such, with being politically correct, as far as I can see. (There may have been elements of PC-ness in this case, of course.). The issue would be simply whether her behaviour was deemed likely to cause disorder, and of what the risk of that really was.
Also, from a property rights point of view, if a train/other service is run by a private company, say, then I would argue that the train company should be free to decide such matters, just as, in a perfect liberal world, pubs and clubs and other such places could so decide. (Alas, such principles have already been partly destroyed as in the outlawing of smoking in privately owned commercial premises). If I own, say, a theatre, and I saw a customer shout abuse of any kind at another in the bar, then I’d be within my rights as the owner of said property to kick the people out and if necessary, ban him/her from re-entering.
The context is also important in such cases, or it can be. It is one thing, maybe, to trade insults with someone in a fairly open place; it is another business if you are on a confined space such as a train carriage or small office and have to hear such abuse, in close proximity. The smaller the space, the more good manners matter. Indeed, think of how the word “civility” and “civic” run together – manners are a function of having to live close to one’s fellows. Institutions such as navies, where people have to sleep cheek by jowl, understand this point almost instinctively – hence all the seemingly petty rules.
These are issues where a healthy civil society is one in which certain behaviours are internalised, reducing the need for rules on such conduct to be enforced by things like police. We should not need to legislate so that mothers do not swear in front of their young children while verbally attacking strangers, or dumping litter on the pavement, or spitting, or urinating in public. And to a degree, the fundamental problem is that this internalisation of moral conduct has been hit by a variety of forces, including the Welfare State, breeding an often oafish, whining sense of entitlement. And it also leads me to the view that one of the most effective ways to restore civility is through private, non-state ownership of public spaces.
By the way, on a related topic, I can recommend Edward Shils’ classic, The Virtue of Civility.