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A Sign Of The Times
by P.L. Frank

We have a real problem in America. Other countries have the problem too, but none have chosen to cope in the unique way that only the U.S. can. Now, I don't have any realistic solutions to offer here. None that wouldn't land me in Federal Prison, that is. So this is more of an observational piece, sans any remedies.

The Micro-View

In a nutshell, America has a serious problem with too many people and too many rules. We can start to understand this problem by first looking at it from a micro-level. This can best be done by examining our own interpersonal relationships. The key element that arises in every troubled relationship between people is the setting down of rules. A good heuristic to keep in mind is that when you find it necessary to make explicit rules for the people you love to follow, you've got yourself a problem.

Remember when you were dating someone? Easy, huh? Things were loose. Free. Uncomplicated. If the relationship progressed without problems, flexibility prevailed. However, let things like misunderstandings, a lack of sensitivity, or a lack of respect for others creep in, and in order to save the relationship, you've got to create yourself some rules. The more explicit rules there are, the more serious the problem: "No more telephone calls from anyone named 'Skippy'"; "Two hours a week 'Sharing Time' required"; "No Cartman impersonations during dinner parties". You get the idea: when people sense problems they start setting explicit rules in an effort to bring order to chaos, to set boundaries, to pull in all the loose ends. In other words, to try and get control of the situation.

The Macro-Level

The same thing occurs at the macro-level. It's not just in America, of course, but the U.S. is a great example. Wherever there are lots of people densely impacted there are problems. Wherever there are problems there are lots and lots of rules. And not just the general ones like "Don't kill people" and "Don't steal stuff" either. I'm talking about a lot of rules. And, since there is no way to have a conversation with each citizen to personally convey all of these rules, people who live in places where there are lots of problems have their rules laid out for them by way of signs.

This rules-to-live-by-via-public-signs has become a way of life for Americans. There is probably no more reliable and predictable way to gage the crime level of a particular area you are driving through, in fact, than to look around at the amount of signs telling people what to do and not to do. The areas with the most problems (and thus, the most signs spelling out the rules) are of course, America's urban areas. Overcrowding and an influx in unemployment and low educational levels apparently, have created a need for sign rules to be posted on every block these days. There are signs telling people not to jay-walk, make no u-turns, no left turns, no parking, no passing, no standing, no loitering, and no stopping. Signs advising what will happen if you enter, litter, make a left turn other than on Sundays between 6:00 AM and 4:00 PM, back up over spikes, or cross the concrete meridian. (This last one does nothing to advise motorists of the impending danger to their alignment or oil pans for such behavior. The object here is to encourage safety not sensible thinking.)

Rules for living signs in U.S. problem areas are certainly not limited to motorists. Remember, the object is to turn chaos into something manageable and set limits and boundaries to reduce The Problem. Enter the Public Service Announcement. Problem areas in America are filled with billboards and wall signs imploring people (often in at least two different languages) to follow the rules. "Don't have sex without a condom"; "If you are a teenager, don't have sex at all" (uh, right); "Don' t share dirty needles"; "Get tested regularly for HIV and hepatitis"; "Don't smoke"; "Don't drink and drive"; "Keep out" (a personal favorite); "No trespassing"; "Beware of dog"; "Warning: Security alarm activated" (more often than not, these last two serve primarily to aid burglars how to better do their jobs) and "Drink Milk" (a little milk-drinking, it has been found, can actually mediate a whole host of societal problems).


The problem with all of these Rules-for-Living signs is that people living in problem areas are so inundated with the signs that they no longer pay attention. In essence, the rule signs have lost their power to motivate and control people's behavior and to solve social problems. Now, I know I said I wasn't going to offer any solutions, but here is something those in charge of such things should consider:

America has a few, small areas of land that are densely impacted and filled with problems, and lots and lots of vast, open space where there are no people and no problems. These areas, in fact, outside of an occasional speed limit, have no rules-for-living signs at all. In fact, with the exception of "Report All Highway Shootings Immediately" (a sign I immediately thought more apt for L.A. than the vast open highways of Wyoming) and "Caution: Game crossing" (the signs change from "Deer Crossing" to Game Crossing" once you hit the Wild West) a person could drive hundreds and hundreds of miles through places like Wyoming, Nevada and New Mexico without ever seeing a single Rule Sign.

All right. Here's my idea: We have so much open land in America. Countless miles of vast, open space. Why not spread things out a bit? Distribute the people and the problems more evenly. This would require less rules, far fewer signs, and a whole lot more people knowing exactly what to do when ordered to enter either "Buck" or "Doe" at public restrooms.

b i o
P.L. Frank enjoys writing both nonfiction social satire and funny, thought-provoking novels.  Dr. Frank has been a researcher in the field of Behavioral and Social Sciences since 1983, and has worked as a university professor and therapist. 

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