Keep the graffiti

In high school, my school bus would drive by a short stone wall lined with graffiti. The graffiti was amateur enough that it was obviously done by the students of the high school (as opposed to most graffiti you see which looks like it was done by gangs).

One day, the graffiti was painted over. I learned the scoop from a classmate: the local Mormons had painted over it. (The local government didn’t care, trust me, the nearby Mormons were responsible.)

I can envision the proposal:

Hello, my church. I’m a student at the local high school. Every day, my bus drives by some awful graffiti. It’s laced with weird language and terrible profanities. We should gather up a team of volunteers and go out there for an afternoon to paint over it! Anyone interested? It’s a great way to show off your volunteering chops. I think this project is a nice way to help and engage with the community.

I’m sure someone gained status by saying that.

I have the following character trait, and I wonder if anyone else can relate. When a person’s “good deed” (virtual signaling in actuality) backfires, their claim of good intentions doesn’t make me more sympathetic to them. I get mad at the bad affects, but even more so, I get extra mad at how self-congratulatory/ sanctimonious I imagine they were when they did it! In these cases, the person should be brought to know that their subconscious motivation was never “do good” to begin with, but some form of “gain status.” But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Here’s the thing about that graffiti: looking at it on the bus ride was always an awesome part of my day.

Ok, maybe that’s hyperbolic. After enough weeks, seeing the same graffiti over and over did loose novelty. But I liked it. The classmate who broke this news agreed with me: that this was a sad change, and propagated by supposed do-gooders.

Let me explain why it was sad. First of all, the graffiti was an archive of history; it was the build-up of many generations of high school dissidents, most of whom were probably long-gone alumni. Second, the graffiti had character.

None of that is the interesting bit. The interesting bit is: why do I care so much?

I think, on issues like this, it behooves you to care disproportionately. I didn’t realize the reason for this belief until I watched a podcast episode discussing changes to Trafalgar Square in London.

You can’t be apathetic. Apathy is how they get you. When someone proposed, “let’s paint over the graffiti,” one or more church members might have disagreed. But that person did not raise their voice, because the embarrassment of opposing the community project outweighed how much they cared (zero if at all). But, due to the cowardice of that one person, now no one gets to enjoy the graffiti, ever again.

Defying the misguided do-gooders is a collective action problem. Even if the misguided do-gooders are a minority, defying that misguided minority is a collective action problem. This is why Bret Weinstein’s famous actions at Evergreen are too be admired. The real story is: why was he the only professor to stand up to the BS going on at Evergreen, given that it was such insane BS? I have the answer: the other professors were cowards. Ok… to be more charitable, it was a collective action problem, and the expected utility was not worth it for each individual professor.

Bret was, to use a quaint term, brave.

But we’re just scratching the surface. When it comes to initiatives which smooth out idiosyncrasies, pave over cultural relics, and whitewash tradition, they don’t get you all at once. Changes come in small waves, little steps:

1. “We need to clean up the pigeons that are congregating new the fountains. It’s too expensive to clean up their crap.” 

No one cares

2. “Be careful when you play in the fountain.”

No one cares

3.”Ok, new rule: no more playing in the fountain.”

No one cares

4. Someone gets hurt. “Ok, no more playing on or near the fountain!”

No one cares

5. Someone ignores the rules. “Ok, were removing the fountain.”

People: “well, it’s only a fountain.”

Each individual change is viewed as completely insignificant or even positive, removing some annoyance or theoretical danger. It’s only when you add up the aggregate of hundreds of little changes that the affect occurs: the erasure of culture.

This contributes to genericification/same-y-ness, as everything migrations towards the bland and inoffensive middle.

One of the most insightful things Jordan Peterson has ever said is this. (As a matter fact, that whole video contains the bulk of the actually good insights he had).

I’ll finish with an anecdote. When I was 8 or 9, A few kids were playing in the park. There was a steep pit with a creek at the bottom. We found a board and positioned it to cross over the pit like a bridge. We took turns “crossing the plank.” We had a blast. A pit was not so deep that any of use would’ve been seriously hurt if we fell.

Two of the kids, not particularly older than us, decided that, because there were no adults present, they would take on the role of safety enforcers. They said, “this is dangerous!” grabbed the board, and threw it down the creek. It got stuck in a gutter. The parents had to come and get it out. When scolded, the two boys said in defense, “we were trying to do a good thing, and keep the other boys safe!” That made me hate them double. 

If the graffiti is cool enough, just keep it.

[If you’re wondering why I’m putting out fewer blog posts, check out my Youtube channel. That’s what’s taking up my time.]