Can we curb the urge to mind other people's business?
No smoking. Buckle up. Curb your dog. Friends don't let friends drive drunk. It's as though the entire culture has embraced a collective peer pressure to get us to behave ourselves: Friends don't let friends . . . do anything.
"We meddle in the name of almost everything: health, safety, efficiency, the bottom line, God, “the children”--you name it, and there will most likely be someone there to meddle on its behalf," say sociologist Charles Edgley and behavioral science professor Dennis Brissett in their new book, A Nation of Meddlers (Westview Press). "We meddle with virtually anyone who crosses either our path or our vested interests. And we meddle with just about anything people do as long as it happens to be something we ourselves do not do. We have become a nation of meddlers."
Edgley and Brissett note that most meddling is supposedly done for the good of the meddlee. Smokers, drinkers, and overeaters would be healthier if they didn't smoke, drink, or overeat—and their bad behaviors have social costs, such as increased health-care and insurance expenses. This is where the meddlers butt in.
Often, the meddlers resort to "benevolent coercion" to encourage misbehavers to seek professional help, the authors note. "The alcoholic is offered treatment instead of jail time; the schizophrenic, therapy instead of mental hospitalization; the drug addict, counseling instead of a court appearance," Edgley and Brissett write. "The offering of such Faustian deals defines a situation that may be technically “voluntary” but hardly free. It is an offering that one refuses at one's own peril."
One consequence of the growing meddling industry is professionals who "interfere with some in the name of protecting others," the authors warn. Among the culprits are divorce lawyers, family therapists, psychiatrists, and religious zealots who increasingly reject America's historic laissez-faire secularism (the first coin minted in the United States bore the motto mind your business) while striving to reduce risk.
Another consequence is the growth of government in the form of new laws governing behavior. Many states have passed legislation banning smoking from public buildings; some communities even try to keep smokers off crowded downtown streets. "It dawns on few of us that the more we ask government to meddle into the lives of others, the closer we get to creating an apparatus that will in all likelihood eventually meddle in our own," Edgley and Brissett note.
But how do we make society less meddlesome and still help people with real problems? We could start by being more honest about what we're really doing when we help people, the authors argue. "We should recognize that it is often for our own good and not theirs that we meddle in the lives of others," they write. Edgley and Brissett recommend:
—Increasing politeness, or what columnist Judith Martin (Miss Manners) calls "the respectful pretense of interest in each other." In other words, maintaining a concern for others that is respectful of their choices (though meddlers might consider this "dishonest").
—Learning tolerance of those whose moral judgments differ from our own. "We need to exercise more discretion when we call on the government to meddle in the lives of others, especially groups with whom we disagree," argue the authors, who cite freedom of speech restrictions in the case of tobacco advertising. "We cannot create a world in which freedom of speech and the press flourish at the same time that, in recognition of the power of the press, we slap restrictions on content of which we disapprove."
—Declaring a moratorium on "rights talk." One legacy of the 1960s social movements is a growing babble of rights claims.
—Learning to care without meddling. Social interaction can be caring and mannerly if we stop being self-righteous. Concern for others is a mark of civilized behavior; browbeating them into conformity is not.
The authors conclude: "It is time to re-examine the social cost exacted by a society of moral and legal absolutists who have forgotten, if they ever knew, that the oldest virtues of communal harmony, cultural coherence, and dignity of the person derive far more from our practiced civility with one another than from our attempts to frighten, harass, and coerce each other into not doing whatever it is we don't like."
From The Futurist (Oct. 1999). Subscriptions: $39/yr. (10 issues) from 7910 Woodmont Av., Suite 450, Bethesda, MD 20814.