“You All Look Alike to Me.”

A couple of things happened this week that–strangely–seem to fit together. I say it’s strange because the educational settings were quite different. In one case, the incident happened at an idyllic liberal arts college; in the other case, the events took place at a Texas-style warehouse high school.

The college incident involved graffiti. Insensitive words were spray painted on the side of a building. This kind of action runs contrary to the very values of the institution (not that hateful graffiti is policy outside of perhaps Bob Jones University). The reaction was intense. Campus-wide emails flew across the server. Official statements strongly condemning these acts (or act) came from the president, various administrators. One email offered counseling to those who felt threatened.

Hold on. Next incident:

The high school experienced a series of incidents this week. First, somebody urinated just outside the boys’ restroom. The next day, two fights broke out. After that, more urine. The reaction was intense. Students, as a whole, had their free time restricted. The time normally set aside for catch-up and recreation was repurposed to sitting in a room.

Okay. Let’s start with the differences in reactions.

The college saw the entire college community as victims who needed help, counseling, and support. A faculty meeting was held to discuss the graffiti, and one key question was “What did they write, actually?” Another question was, “Um…where is this graffiti?” It was all on one wall. One word was “NIG,” which makes me wonder if someone ran out of paint or forgot how to spell the slur. It may have been two 11 year olds, for all we know at this point.

In other words, most people on campus (myself included) had no idea anything was going on. We were only told that we were under siege by the forces of hate and that the campus community would rally together to fight this hate with counseling, meetings, and (by the way) some sort of law enforcement to deter or catch anyone trying to do this again. If it was just removed or covered, the vast majority of the campus would not know anything had happened. If getting everyone upset wasn’t the goal, I don’t know what the idiot’s goal would have been.

On the other hand, the high school saw all students as potential perpetrators. Everyone must pay unless and until we catch the actual urinator(s) in question. While only four students actually got into fights, the other 2200 will pay for those fights as a lesson…of what it’s like to be punished for things you don’t do.

My guess is that the students are fully aware of that lesson by now…

There are similarities here, though. They seem like the key here.

In both cases, those in charge treated every individual as a nameless part of a bigger group, be they victims or perpetrators. My experience as a behaviorist has shown the best way to extinguish a behavior like graffiti or inappropriate urination (seriously?) is to “ignore” it. Don’t believe me? Take a teenager and refuse to look at them for an hour. Watch things explode! Yes, the graffiti needs to be removed. Yes, the pee needs to get mopped and deodorized. Otherwise, the actions are minor. Stupid, but minor.

But making giant public spectacles of these things turns such actions into major actions. Such reaction only stands to encourage stupid behavior. If you feel powerless in this world, you always know that spray painting “NIG” on a wall will send an entire campus into a frenzy. No spray paint? Just go pee on a public wall somewhere or pick a fight. You can hold 2200 students hostage for an hour with a single stupid action, while accomplishment in light of 2200 others is much more difficult. These are bad lessons to teach, whether you catch the idiots in question or not.

By victimizing or suspecting all and publicizing actions loudly, you actually reinforce stupid, obnoxious behavior. When the Ku Klux Klan has a major rally, perhaps 100 people show up (normal rally: 12). But then another 6,000 arrive to protest the rally. To a Klansman, that’s an audience of 6,100. If these “knights” showed up and found themselves alone, they’d just feel stupid in front of each other wearing bedsheet hats.

Every time I have to remove my shoes in an airport, I think how that failed “shoe-bomber” actually won, at my expense. That man couldn’t light a match, and yet I get athlete’s foot because of him. I pay a TSA fee to hire the people to insist I remove my shoes. I have to arrive that much earlier for my flight. My life is altered, even in his failure. He won, and he won because we decided to help him win.

Stupid people do stupid things. More attention means more stupid things. If you can’t catch the “urine bandit,” then it stands to reason that peeing on a wall by yourself brings only so much excitement. The idiot will find the urinal, if ignored, because the only thrill is the effect it has on others. I can only hope the moron with the spray paint can didn’t see all the hoopla he caused on campus. Next time, the “artist” might actually look up how to spell the whole word, and it costs more to cover up six letters than three.


About Paul T. Henley, Ph. D.

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