By J.W. Schnarr
Nearly 2,400 years ago, a Greek philosopher named Socrates got into hot water by telling people it was their duty to question authority. We’ve been reminded of this idea again and again through history, notably by Timothy Leary, who also told us the way to think for ourselves was to challenge authority.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about the idea of challenging authority a lot. Just about every time I read the news, or see an out-of-town media outlet crack a joke about Taber’s new bylaw.
Locally, the passage of Community Standards Bylaw 4-2015 has been nothing short of an absolute joke and it is quickly making us a laughingstock around the province. Yes, the town has seen fit to reserve the right to fine you for spitting and swearing, among other things.
They’d have you believe it’s this other stuff, the heavy fines for vandalism and for breaking curfew (because, you know, children actually DO live in a police state and lack even basic human rights). And of course, allowing police to disperse your group of three or more people simply because they don’t like what you are doing. Because, you know, adults also live in that same police state as their children.
When the bylaw passed at the last council meeting, His worship, Mayor Henk DeVlieger, said he was in favour of it IN SPITE OF the bylaw being fundamentally flawed.
“I’m in support,” he said. “I’m not saying this thing is perfect, but I think we should give it a chance and try it out, and let the police work with it. After a period of time, we might make some adjustments, but let’s see how it works.”
Adjustments? So, are police planning on issuing refunds for all the people who get tickets for aspects of the bylaw that are later changed?
I’ve heard a lot of people say this bylaw is a tool which law enforcement would like to use in their efforts to curb the big, secret problem in Taber. We all know which one, but do you think I can get someone to say it on the record?
Nobody will even say the word. I couldn’t tell you how many police, politicians, and public leaders I’ve seen do a little knowing smile and wink when it comes to issues of young Mennonites racing their trucks around town, amassing in huge groups at the Taber Arena or at Wal-Mart, drinking and driving, littering, and harassing local residents.
They speak in code. They say things like “a certain group in town” or “some young people,” and they stop themselves from speaking openly about it because they don’t want to be seen as intolerant in front of the local media.
So, in order to fight their secret war, does the bylaw add some teeth to nightly rounds police make? You bet it does. Again, I’m not saying this is the reason for it, because nobody will tell us for sure.
But it is an interesting coincidence. The group of “we all know who it is but we’re not going to say it” in our community are generally low voters, and tend not to take a big interest in local politics. So maybe there weren’t too many voices speaking up when this bylaw was being built.
A friend of mine was talking about the bylaw and said officers could easily fill their quota for swearing and spitting (and possibly fighting) by attending any minor sports event. But of course, those aren’t people who are going to be targeted. I will eat my hat if a single person gets a bylaw ticket for swearing or screaming at a football or hockey game.
You know who else will not be getting a ticket? Anybody drinking and making a bunch of noise at Cornfest this year. I was in the beer garden all night last year, and it would be easy to hand out a couple hundred tickets. Instant funding for whatever you want, be it 50th Street roadwork or an indoor sports complex.
Rest assured, that is not going to happen, either.
Here’s the thing: there are basically two ways your rights and personal freedoms can be taken from you, and you have to be even more vigilant with one over the other. One way, they are taken from you in large, bold strokes, like what happened in Russia at the end of The First World War. That one is easy to spot.
The other is insidious, and it is accomplished by these kind of noodling beancounter attempts to modify your behaviour by hitting you in the wallet.
The “stop spitting or get a fine” stuff.
The “stop swearing or get a fine” stuff.
This is a far more dangerous assault on your freedoms, because often they are put in place by people who are fed up and wish certain segments of the population and would just straighten up and do what everyone else is doing. Conform! Fall in line!
I’m very certain that members of the police and the police commission who drafted this bylaw, and those on council who later passed it, were not intentionally trying to be draconian in dealing with what they see as undesirable traits in the behaviour of the local populace.
But by not clearly thinking this bylaw through, and by simply passing it in a half-formed state, they are opening the door on a lot of different, petty miseries on the local population. You never want your police to feel resented or hated.
But you can’t foster a strong relationship when you are forced to sit through annoying lectures about how your poor behaviour is causing a rip in the fabric of the greater good.
I urge you, Constant Readers, to think for yourselves and question authority. Call your local councillor.
Call your mayor and let them know what you think of folks who stomp all over your basic rights and freedoms. But for God’s sake, be polite when you do it. Last thing I need is to get arrested for sparking a protest.
I’m pretty sure there’s a fine for that.
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