Illiberalism’s spitting image

UK councils can ban spitting, but no law in the land will ever make people more polite or respectful.

The issue of spitting sparks puzzling extremes of passion. After Enfield this week became the first UK council to ban spitting, local radio shows received waves of texts and calls: ‘It’s a disgusting habit! The fine should be bigger! Footballers should be given yellow cards when they spit! Carry a handkerchief for God’s sake!’ ‘No no no, not fined! Shot!’, suggested one BBC Radio Wales listener. Councillors across the country signalled their desire to follow Enfield’s lead.

This is puzzling because spitting causes no harm or even inconvenience to other members of the public. It is rude – or can be rude, medical or sporting reasons aside – but so are many other things. It no longer carries the health risks of spreading illnesses such as TB. Yet many people become much more energised about spitting than they do about real crimes such as theft or assault.

The passion directed at spitting is because of what it represents: disrespect. The youth gobbing on to the pavement has become an emblem of disrespect, his depositing of body fluids on tarmac a sign of his contempt for public space and for other people. ‘I don’t want to look at somebody’s phlegm!’ a local councillor said on BBC Radio Suffolk. ‘I don’t want to look at their body fluids.’ The phlegm is seen as a ‘tag’ of contempt (which indeed is its traditional meaning – to spit in someone’s face is insulting beyond words).

More than this, spitting has become the embodiment of a host of social problems – run-down streets, disrespectful youths, declining adult authority. When I suggested to one councillor that the police of Enfield might be better of concerning themselves with robberies, the councillor responded: ‘If you start from the small issues, the big issues will follow.’ So spitting bans become crime prevention, neighbourhood regeneration, and much more.

Here we see how social problems appear in fetishised or emblematic forms, as a particular cultural habit or form of behaviour. Hence, it is only on the level of behaviour that a solution can be imagined.

Spitting bans are a new departure for the criminal law, which traditionally was limited to issues of actual harm or significant public nuisance. There is a widely held view that ‘spitting is disgusting/rude, therefore it should be banned’. If you argue that rudeness and politeness should be seen as cultural matters, not legal ones, you are met with incomprehension: ‘How would we do that? If there are no fines for spitting, why would people stop doing it?’

It seems that in the absence of the intuitive codes according to which certain things were deemed unacceptable, the warden dishing out fines is the only form of social discipline that can be imagined.

Even the ‘etiquette consultant’ on BBC Radio Wales said that spitting needs to be banned: ‘Culture hasn’t worked.’ So much for etiquette. The spitting ban embodies the impotence of civil society to set any rules or exert any discipline for itself. Everything must be enforced from above: never can we say ‘we should do x’, but only ‘there needs to be a law against x’.

Spitting footballers spark particular bile. ‘They don’t need to do it. They should carry a handkerchief in their pocket’, opined one councillor. Mr Etiquette Consultant said that if people saw footballers spit on the pitch they would copy them and do it in the street. Here it seems that practically the only possible way of affecting culture is pressuring footballers and other ‘role models’ to change their modes of comportment. If they stop spitting, everyone will stop spitting.

Local councils across the country have signalled their desire to bring through spitting bans of their own. Hillingdon and Waltham Forest have already started fining people for spitting, absurdly classing it as ‘litter’. Croydon, Doncaster and Havering have all said that they want to bring through a ban. ‘I’ll be taking this to Ipswich City Council’, resolved the councillor on Radio Suffolk.

It is striking that the councillors banning spitting are those who resonate energy and purpose. The Enfield councillor Chris Bond is a man with a mission. He dubbed the ban a ‘victory for the people of Enfield’: ‘It is an awful and disgusting habit and I’m delighted we can now get on with banning this filthy practice. I hope other local authorities will now follow suit. Our campaign to end this practice has resonated with people all over the United Kingdom.’

It appears that the ban of some ‘filthy practice’ or other is now the most heralded public service; councillors seeking to improve roads or childcare do not have the same fervour. It is primarily through the ban that the state can affect society in a meaningful sense. So local government - the branch of state most exclusively concerned with provision (roads, water, lights, sewage) - now finds authority through prohibition and the exercising its coercive powers.

Of course, these spitting bans are largely gestural. Some people will be fined, but the bans will not and cannot be enforced in any consistent manner, unless Enfield council wants to post a warden on every street corner. Nor will they increase respect, since local youths are unlikely to learn more niceties from a badged busybody giving them a spitting ticket (which they won’t pay).

Ultimately, issues of politeness and etiquette cannot be regulated by the criminal law, because their binding force comes from other people. It is the fellow citizen and not the external sanction that calls upon you to show respect. Taking the law into this terrain degrades the law and civility alike.

The German sociologist Max Weber wrote that ‘collective order’ is ‘only to a small extent the result of an orientation towards legal rules’. He would without doubt have classified spitting as an issue falling within the domains of ‘convention’ or ‘custom’, to be reinforced with ‘disapproval’ rather than a ‘coercive apparatus’.

Josie Appleton is convenor of the Manifesto Club.

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