You Can Legislate Morality. Ask Anyone Who's Tried to Avoid Picking Up After Their Dog.
I have been thinking a lot lately about dog shit. It seems to be the answer to one of my more persistent inner puzzles. Dog shit is a surprisingly deep topic.
Dallas enacted a so-called pooper-scooper law in 1997, a moment in local history I remember well, because I got tagged by a city code inspector the very next day. I was what I guess you'd have to call a scooper scofflaw.
I had my reasons. I was then the master of a dog with genetic problems affecting the gastrointestinal processes. I know that you won't want too much information on this. Suffice it to say that scooping was difficult, so I pretty much didn't do it.
Plus, nobody else did it. Not many. For a while after I got ticketed, I carried around a big harvesting apparatus that allowed me to do my duty without having to shower and change clothes. But people in the neighborhood actually laughed at me. One guy said I looked like the Grim Reaper. Son of a bitch. So I stopped. If one man obeys the law while others flout it, then that man shall be viewed by society as a ninny. You can use that for a quote if you want.
Here's the inner moral, social and political puzzle.
There's a quote -- "You can't legislate morality" -- that apparently has been around since at least the 19th century, even though it is commonly attributed to the late Barry Goldwater of Arizona, conservative U.S. senator and 1964 presidential candidate, who is supposed to have said it in explanation of his vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The late Martin Luther King Jr. offered a famous rebuttal in a speech at Western Michigan University, calling the idea that you can't legislate morality a half-truth. He said: "It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that is pretty important."
I have never known quite what to think. In thinking about dog shit lately, I find myself going back to both men, Goldwater and King, and it looks to me like the scales of history have come down on King's side. You can legislate morality. Mine anyway.
All our dogs died. Not all at once; serially. And naturally. We were dog-free. We were determined to stay that way. For a long time I reveled in arriving at the end of each new day and not having to rush home to walk a dog. Then finally one day I realized I didn't have anything else to do.
So, to make a very long story less long, we recently adopted. I'm back out on the dog-walking circuit. What I notice now is that everybody scoops. It's very rare to see people with dogs not doing it. And now it's the other dog-walkers who judge you.
I tried to get away with a fake scoop -- you lean over with a bag in your hand and stare at the matter very intently, then fade away. But I did that one day and another walker called out, "I think you missed something."
I said, "I have a terrible vision problem. Thank you so much." I had to go back and scoop. Damn. I even thought briefly about carrying a long white cane and some Mr. Magoo glasses when I walk the dogs, but too many people in the neighborhood know me. I think I have no choice but to scoop.
Since the day the code lady got me, I have never again seen a single city employee out enforcing the law. I can only conclude that the passage of the law and the very existence of the law sent out some kind of moral message telling people what their fellow community members think of them for scoop-scoffing. And it is that message, not any enforcement activity, that has in fact radically altered behavior.
So you can too legislate morality. Think about it. If you can pass a pusillanimous little ordinance that the city can't even afford to enforce and get people to pick up dog shit, you can probably get them to do a lot of things with laws.
It's weird. I don't feel that I am a better person now that I scoop. I'm just doing it to avoid getting hectored. But I do believe other people think I am a better person for scooping, and somehow that feels like almost the same thing.
I keep trying to get at the inner truth of it. Maybe it's this: If they pass a new law legislating morality, don't be the first person to obey it. But when everybody else starts, you better jump in. You can use that for a quote too.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.