September 20, 2011

Freedom of Excretion

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Leonard Cohen, the famed writer and musician enjoying his 77th birthday this Sept. 21, jokingly implored in his irreverent book Beautiful Losers, “Never make a decision when you need to pee.” So either pee in your pants, or just go and don’t think about it. But which is it?

Cornell University Police reported 13 incidents of exposures of a person — police jargon for the class of offenses that includes peeing immodestly in public (we’ll call this p.i.m.ping, for abrvs.) — and two incidents of public urination on campus the weekend of Sept. 9. Chief of Cornell Police Kathy Zoner openly disclosed that, alongside increased gorge patrols, police enforcement has been upped every weekend since the start of O-Week. Zoner warned those considering exposing their persons, “We’re trying to send a message out early to folks that abuse and the activities that are connected to [abuse] are not going to be tolerated.”

Chief Zoner’s assumption of probable abuse could make you angry — almost to the brink of starting a revolution. French revolutionaries overthrew their monarchy in response to King Louis XVI’s abuses and established the First Republic on Sept. 21, 1792. Most would agree the initial stimuli of the revolution were just, but Louis XVI’s trial for treason and subsequent guillotining? A bit harsh. Maximilien Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety’s Reign of Terror that guillotined more than 1,000 Parisians? Utterly frightening. The progression from unilateral authority to law “for the people, by the people” usually involves anarchy somewhere in the middle, so perhaps we need chief Zoner’s unsympathetic security to keep us in line.

But perhaps not. In the dimension-bending 1895 novel The Time Machine, H.G Wells — who would be celebrating his 145th birthday on Sept. 21 — writes, “Strength is the outcome of need; security [read: Cornell police] sets a premium on feebleness.” Wells might not encourage you to travel to 2050 and indulge that need to audition for Jersey Shore: Orgy On the Moon, but at a minimum, he wouldn’t support Chief Zoner’s campaign. Why not pull back on piss-punishment and cultivate strength through mutual trust that our community will accept a collective bodily need?

An allegedly abusive anecdote: while benevolently escorting a drunk female friend home to her dorm freshman year, a chum of mine was overcome by the urge to urinate. Finding the woods between Thurston Bridge and Risley a prime spot for the deed, he scurried into the darkness and unzipped his fly, only to sense a flashlight gleam on the backside of his neck. Moments later the officer asked him, “Does this look like a toilet?” to which he responded, “No. Is it illegal to pee outside?” Growing up, he peed outside all the time and never got in trouble. He learned the trade from his father, an avid biker who pees outside all the time. My friend was Jay Ayed and, had he been convicted twice more for the same offense, would be in the same heaps of trouble we find ourselves in for authentic abuse. So what if judicial sanctions aren’t charges in the municipal court system and won’t show up as arrests on a background check? We still run the risk of suspension, even expulsion.

In Thinking About Crime, James Q. Wilson argues that law enforcement is supposed to stop disorderly behavior, not criminal behavior. Crime is murder and heroin trafficking — not people wreaking disorder that ultimately proves innocuous. People are really afraid of being bothered by disorderly miscreants, a category he heads with “obstreperous and unpredictable,” including drunks (frat stars), rowdy teenagers (Ithaca high school students), loiterers (those sweaty kids outside Pixel on a Wednesday night), the mentally disturbed (Cornell Sun opinion columnists) and prostitutes. Therefore, Wilson concludes, police are there to combat fear of discomfort rather than real physical harm.

But it’s we who are uncomfortable, and last I checked, police are meant to protect us.

It seems the increased presence of cops on campus has something to do with the revised restrictions on drinking, fratlife and just having a good time. But what about the practicality of preferring to relieve yourself in public? “Gotta go” is definitely more compelling than “Well, laundry is cheap.” And watering the plants is legit. The fact is, getting away with it won’t encourage anyone to drink more, let alone commit more serious offenses.

Bernard Harcourt’s Illusion of Order breaks down the “broken-windows” crime theory — fundamental to law enforcement worldwide — which argues that permitting minor misdemeanors to go unpunished only encourages more serious crimes. Though the broken-windows theory has been around for nearly 30 years, it has never been empirically verified, and existing data even suggests that it is false. It rests on opaque categories like “law abiders,” “disorderly people,” “order” and “disorder,” which only exist conceptually, independent of our society’s self-appointed standards and techniques of punishment. So how, indeed, did the order-maintenance approach to criminal justice come to the forefront of justice theories? The establishment must have been afraid of anarchical guillotining and time machines.

But this is not a competition, revolution or a novel; this is our University. We all go to the bathroom, ipso facto, we’re all in this together.

When the 1992 team U.S.A “Dream Team” was announced on Sept. 21, 1991, everyone knew a roster with 10 of the 50 greatest players of all time would run train on any squad of ballers another nation could assemble. But the Olympic committee didn’t rule “No basketball till everyone else gets better.” To break records and enthrall fans, a team must obliterate its opponents and disappoint their fans. But even the most die-hard fans that raise middle fingers skyward to those of other allegiances tend to commit no crimes other than hoping to watch something amazing happen. And yet it seems the Cornell police refuse to let something simple happen, because they think it’s entirely destructive — abusive even. It’s like they’re our opponents, not our protectors.

I’m not one to encourage p.i.m.ping, but I know that incorrectly labeling abuse discourages the strength every community deserves.

Jacob Kose is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at jkose@cornellsun.com. Scrambled Eggs appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Jacob Kose