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.