- UNHERD - Jan 11, 2021 -
Ed West -
Back in the early 1980s, during the worst period of urban squalor and decay in the United States, a feeling of despair had set in about crime. Could cities ever be made liveable again? Who would want to raise a family in a place with so much everyday disorder and violence?
It was at this point that political scientist James Q. Wilson came up with the theory of Broken Windows, an idea that was to become hugely influential in turning the tide and restoring American cities to civility (much of which has been undone in 2020). Wilson argued that if the authorities crack down on minor incivility – graffiti, fare-dodging, panhandling – then very soon it will start to have an effect on major crimes too. It was to some degree basic common sense – give them an inch and they’ll take a mile – but then the 1960s had been a unique time of unlearning common sense in favour of exciting and fashionable new theories about human behaviour.
Broken Windows works partly because, even in the most violent places, huge amounts of serious crime is committed by a very small percentage of men. In Central American countries such as El Salvador or Honduras, which are plagued by horrific homicide rates, violence is mostly concentrated not just in a few neighbourhoods but even a few streets. Removing only a very small number of men has a drastic effect on wider society.
I often think about Wilson when perusing everyone’s favourite forum of thoughtful political debate, Twitter, which in terms of civility is somewhere around the period of The Warriors or Joker, the nadir of late 70s/early 80s urban decay.
If Twitter were a city it would be the sort of city where the authorities allow people to defecate in public or shoot up outside a school, and then express surprise when middle-class families wish to leave because of “the better quality of life” found in a four-hour commute away exurb.
The situation has been deteriorating for some time, although users of the site have rather adopted a Golden Age myth of a non-existent time when Twitter wasn’t filled with hysterics and fanatics. But this weekend, and with the moral courage of Ecuador or Paraguay declaring war on Germany in February 1945, Twitter finally decided to ban Donald Trump. After years of winding people up, lying, inciting hatred and worse, the outgoing President had finally overstepped the mark on 6 January. Three days later, and his Twitter opus was gone.