Among other topics in social psychology, my husband studies uncivil behavior and the factors that lead people in the street to express disagreement with, and even attempt to prevent, such behavior. This intervention by a by-stander is usually called “Social Control.” Recently it is also called “Civil Courage.” This second label recalls the fact that such intervention can actually be dangerous (which is one reason it does not always occur). Last year a man who stepped in when a small group of thugs stole a cell phone from another kid on an U-Bahn in Munich was murdered by those very thugs at the next U-Bahn stop. Uncivil behaviors are not always as dramatic as theft, and include tagging, littering, cutting in line and … failing to pick up poop after ones best friend. By the way, the term for dog poop in French is déjections canines. Love it.
A couple of years ago our local (French) television station covered some of my husband’s research on Civil Courage because, unsurprisingly, city halls and other civic institutions are interested in better understanding uncivil behaviors that occur in public places. The show opened with driving music and footage of different locations in our city of Clermont-Ferrand. In each location the camera zoomed in on … a pile of dejections canines. Then a voice over said, “Markus Brauer, researcher for the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS)…”
Our teenage boys saw this and they fell off their chairs laughing as they rushed to get out of the house, trying to distance themselves from their father. “Dog poop, dog poop, dog poop … Markus Brauer,” they wheezed, closing the door behind them.
Some individuals from more northern countries of Europe and North America get all exercised about dog poop, which, by most people’s experience, is more abundant on the sidewalks of France than their country. If I understand correctly, they believe that the presence of so many déjections canines means that the French are unconcerned about their environment or about others. I used to think that this commentary was ridiculous and that they just had to step around the piles and keep going. In my own experience, it becomes automatic.
My thinking is much more complicated now that I have children. When my children have run toward the gate to their school, right through a huge pile that someone did not pick up, I have typically not felt very flexible or compassionate. About a year ago a guy (who, incidentally looks just like Sarkozy and wears very expensive clothes) started to let his fancy dog leave piles of dejections canines outside of our garden gate, and never picked up. Consequently, the kids started to run through the poop on the way to the car. Finally, I attached the sign featured above on the outside of our gate and it seemed to work. But the teenagers took to leaving our apartment by the front door in order to avoid being associated with the sign.
On the other hand, not picking up is not all about indifference. For some people in Clermont-Ferrand, leaving any kind of dirt on the streets and sidewalks insures that the city workers, the functionnaires, who clean the streets with their green brooms, will have a job tomorrow.
There is also the problem that one more rule is a rule too many. It turns out that the study of Civil Courage is viewed by some individuals in France as an ideological question; specifically as a right-wing sort of concern. By this reasoning, being left-wing means you leave people to their own devices. I do not see it this way, and neither does my husband. Our thinking is more similar to our friend and philosophe from Aix-en-Provence who believes that if people don’t encourage each other to pick up the poop after their dogs, then by extension we leave this (and control over all uncivil behaviors) to the State. As in military state. But even this reasoning of course is very nuanced and tricky.
I still think, though, that people should pick up after their dog.
I am just saying…