(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, January 6.)
I RECENTLY had occasion to use a public toilet. There, scrawled in bold black writing above the urinal, were the words “Go and f*** yourself”.
I was intrigued. Who was this instruction aimed at? Clearly not anyone in particular. If it had been, it would have said: “Go and f*** yourself, Brian” (or Karl, or Wayne, or whatever), in the optimistic hope that the intended insultee would happen to visit that particular urinal, realise it was directed at him and slink out in shame.
No, whoever wrote this particular piece of graffiti was angry at the world at large and didn’t care much who read it.
But what puzzled me even more was this: what possible satisfaction could the writer have got?
Admittedly, some people get pleasure from directing insults and abuse at others. Some malicious souls go through life being sadistically unpleasant, often to those closest to them.
Whatever satisfaction they get from deriding and belittling other people stems – or so I imagine – from seeing the hurt inflicted by their words. It’s perverse, but at least there’s a twisted logic to it.
Angry graffiti directed at no one in particular, on the other hand, is utterly illogical. The perpetrator doesn’t even have the satisfaction of seeing the shocked reaction of the viewer. So why would anyone go to the trouble?
Contemplating that message in the public dunny as I did my business, I found myself wondering – not for the first time – at the sheer amount of inarticulate, unfocused rage out there in the community.
I have come across other examples of such rage lately, some of them relatively harmless while others impose a substantial cost on the community.
An example of the former category was a driver I encountered while out riding my bike. He was going in the opposite direction, and as he approached he wound down his window and screamed abuse at me.
I didn’t discern exactly what he said, but the contorted face and the hostile tone left me in no doubt that he wasn’t wishing me the compliments of the season.
I didn’t recognise the man or his vehicle. I was on the opposite side of the road, riding by myself (as is my habit) and keeping well to the left so as not to impede traffic. But something about me so enraged him that he went to the trouble of slowing down and winding down his window so he could get it off his chest before continuing on his way.
Was the abuse aimed at me personally, or did the driver have an aversion to cyclists in general? Your guess is as good as mine.
As with the perpetrator of the graffiti in the dunny, I wondered what could have motivated this sad, dysfunctional individual to behave the way he did, and what possible satisfaction he could have got from it.
Readers of this column may recall that several years ago I recounted a similar incident that happened when I was out walking my dog. Again, it involved a total stranger. On that occasion, he paused just long enough to lower his car window and shout abuse from across the street - I recall him using a W word that rhymes with banker - before speeding off. (And no, it wasn’t the same vehicle I encountered on my bike.) My great regret is that in these situations I can never think of a more witty rejoinder than something like "F*** off, you tosser" - which, of course, brings me right down to their level.
As long they don’t escalate beyond mere verbal abuse, such incidents, while puzzling, are relatively harmless. Far more disconcerting, but still representative of the same inarticulate rage, are acts of mindless vandalism.
My local council planted 25 lime trees along a street only a block from my house. Two years later, only six are left.
Whoever destroyed these trees went to some lengths. The saplings were enclosed in sturdy metal cages anchored with waratahs driven deep into the ground. Sadly, it wasn’t enough to save them.
Someone was so filled with rage and hate that they wrenched the cages over and then snapped the saplings at the base.
This was done systematically and repeatedly. Sometimes trees that had been attacked on a Saturday night would be repaired and their protective cages re-erected, only to be vandalised again the following weekend.
Vandalism is synonymous with destruction. The word comes to us, after all, from the northern European tribe that attacked Rome in the 5th century and destroyed or made off with some of its greatest treasures.
But there is something especially sad and desperate about modern-day vandals senselessly sabotaging amenities that have been provided in an attempt to improve the quality of life in their own community.
It is a form of nihilism – a rejection of everything worthwhile. It’s tantamount to an attack on oneself, like self-mutilation. You can only wonder at the abject pessimism that underlies such behaviour.
Tagging falls into the same category. It’s as if the perpetrators live in such hopeless circumstances that they seek satisfaction by trying to drag the rest of the community down with them.
Taggers derive no obvious benefit from defacing people’s walls and fences with their primitive territorial markers. All that results is that the entire urban environment is degraded, to everyone’s cost.
Doubtless sociologists have an explanation for such behaviour. They would use words such as “alienation” and “marginalisation”. But such words go only part of the way toward explaining vandalism and certainly fall far short of justifying it.
It may be a matter of economic, social and political significance that some people feel so hard done by that they want to lash out. But feeling hard done by has never been considered a legitimate excuse for interfering with the rights of others or damaging their property, even by such trivial gestures as scrawling offensive abuse in a public dunny – or screaming abuse at a harmless cyclist, for that matter.