Last week, Grand Rapids, Michigan made news by repealing its “annoying” law. That is, the law that made it illegal to be annoying, not that the law itself was annoying. But then I suppose it would have been annoying for anyone prosecuted under the law. The City attorney thought the law was unworkable, and she was right. Subjective standards tend to work about as well in courts as they do anyplace else, which is to say, not well at all.
NFL Fan: “Wait a minute, he caught that ball!”
NFL Rules Nazi: “No, he has to make a ‘football move’ after he catches it.”
NFL Fan: “What the heck is a ‘football move’!? He has to bring a handgun to a nightclub before it’s a catch? That seems arbitrary.”
Not that annoying behavior should be condoned in a civilized society. I’m all for a law that bans annoyances, as long as I get to decide what’s annoying. To that end, I would humbly suggest the following behavior as falling well within any legal definition of “annoying”:
1. Using the word literally in a way that demonstrates you clearly do not know what the word means.
2. Selfies. Because friends don’t let friends hold their own cameras.
3. Air quotes.
4. Commenting on someone’s Facebook status about yourself. That’s what your status update is for.
5. Refusing to make a McGriddle at 10:35 A.M. It’s only 10:35, lady!.
6. Claiming in public to have “moves like Jagger” without, in fact, having moves like Jagger.
7. Using the term “hashtag” out loud in everyday conversation.
9. Pretending any of the following are words in the English language: guestimate, irreguardless, ginormous, or (my new personal favorite), flustrated.
But since nobody made me the benevolent dictator today, I’ll have to have a somewhat smaller role in shaping laws–a single vote among many. And as long as Americans run a representative democracy, laws will reflect society’s values, albeit imperfectly. Like a fun-house mirror, there are always some distortions.
American history in general, and its legislative history in particular, is a mish-mash of discarded experiments that we recall with equal parts nostalgia and embarrassment–like looking back at a high school yearbook.
I can’t believe that mullet I had!
I should’ve been better friends to that guy.
Did he really wear MC Hammer pants to the homecoming dance?
Sometimes our law-making past can seem unfathomable in the harsh light of the present day. The 18th Amendment, passed in 1919, ushered in an era of Prohibition. Not because the tiny but powerful minority of interests represented in the cabal of Big Tea wanted it that way, but because many Americans wanted it that way. While Prohibition is widely considered a failure because so many people circumvented the law, and because it likely contributed to crime rates, it did not fail to represent the will of many Americans. By the same token, its repeal by the 21st Amendment was also a fair representation of the views on alcohol over a decade later. Sometimes law-making demonstrates how fickle we are. Or how flexible we are, depending on whether one considers it a vice or a virtue.
Sometimes the rear view mirror of law-making presents a lesson about culture. Blue laws, such as the ban on the sale of automobiles on Sunday in Indiana, suggest a time before religious convictions were deemed categorically ineligible as a basis for expressing public opinion. Sometimes, it’s a lesson about shame. Many parents in the last thirty years have awkwardly explained to their kids why some Americans had separate lunch counters in the later half of the twentieth century.
There’s nothing unpatriotic about hindsight that brings regret. It’s part of maturation. But let’s regret our decisions, not our freedom to make them. Most places on earth only know laws through the eye of the despot, or the boot of his will. If you think a law that bans annoying behavior is subjective, then imagine the cruel arbitrary nature of laws selected by just one person–instead of the representatives of two-hundred and fifty million. Imagine every law, rule, or regulation coming down to the personal preference of the one with the most guns. Or oil. Or food. Now that’s arbitrary. But for most of the world’s inhabitants, that’s reality.
A couple of years back, the UK magazine The Telegraph ranked the world’s worst cities to live in. The dubious honor of making the top ten went to such Shangri-La destinations as: Tehran (Iran); Tripoli (Libya); and Harare (Zimbabwe). I can only assume that Pyongyang (N. Korea) didn’t make the list because the Telegraph figured that having Dennis Rodman as a semi-permanent house guest was punishment enough and they didn’t want to pile-on. It’s no coincidence that the arbitrary law-making process in despotic regimes produces oppression and misery.
Democratic law-making is no guarantee of success, but it has the capacity for self-correction and it shields against impulsive laws. Something tells me that Kim Jong-Un could make a law requiring everyone to wear REO Speedwagon muscle shirts on Tuesdays and still nobody would call him out.
I know if that happened here, I would be very, very flustrated.