Signs and nonsense

A few days ago, the Public Order Ministry announced that, at the initiative of the minister, it would be prosecuting the people responsible for damaging road signs, including those who plaster stickers on them. We may laugh at the sight of a ministry announcing that it would do what it is supposed to be doing anyhow – enforcing the law – but many citizens must have been happy to hear that at last somebody might be doing something about the plague of unreadable signs. No one is expecting miracles, of course, because the issue is not so much one of policing but of attitude: Some people believe that they have the right to impose their will on public property. The destroyed road signs are in themselves a very serious issue, as they may lead to confusion, accidents and death. But the issue is even more serious, and concerns the Greeks’ relationship to public space. When the most visible system of communication, that of road signs, is in such a frightening state because of the shamelessness of some of us, what can one say about the more complicated and often unwritten principles of communication and behavior? What happens when almost throughout all of society, the signs that we read are misleading? When what we expect and what happens are two different things? We see this system of deceit everywhere, from our roads to the public services (that are anything but «services»), to the lies of our politicians. Trying to find our way through a forest of lies and disappointments, where the citizen does not gain the most obvious from his obedience to the law (namely, protection by the law), we learn that paranoia and taking the law into our own hands are, unfortunately, the most effective weapons for getting by. And so we constitute a society in which personal interests are not subject to the public good. Instead, whoever is in a position to do so and to get away with it exploits the plethora of contradictory and unclear laws, the incompetence of the state and the sheep-like tolerance of his fellow citizens to further his own interests at the expense of the public interest. We see this in the way people take over public land and how they build wherever they choose without a permit; we see it in the way garbage spoils our entire country and plagues our cities and towns; in the way we use whatever undue influence (the notorious «meson» and nepotism) as well as bribes to get what we want from public services; we see it in the frivolous way in which we conduct our guerrilla war against laws and principles. The state, with its many failings, provokes and tolerates the repetition of such antisocial behavior. But it is obvious that the responsibility lies squarely with the citizens themselves who think nothing of acting against the interests of their fellow citizens. One need only stop at a traffic intersection to see this. Should any pedestrian put his or her faith in the traffic lights and the markings on the road that delineate the pedestrian crossing, they face mortal danger, because many motorcyclists and car drivers show total indifference to the rights and safety of pedestrians and drive right through the marked area before stopping. Only paranoid pedestrians – those who trust no traffic lights, no road markings, no drivers – have a shot at survival. The state does not police the intersections sufficiently, but it is the drivers who are mostly to blame for their own uncivilized behavior. The examples are countless. But they all stem from the basic lack of trust between the citizen and the state. Because there is an overriding sense that nothing is as it seems, that there is nothing objective in what is right before our eyes, the Greeks have discovered their own theory of relativity. According to this, road signs, laws, principles, traditions and good manners generally are not absolute values. On the contrary, they are the product of a compromise between the citizen, other citizens and the state. People follow the rules most of the time and ignore them when they do not suit their needs. The law, on the other hand, is enforced subjectively and often arbitrarily, prompting people to try to get away with all sorts of violations because they believe the laws are not just but also believe that the state is incapable of enforcing them. When the signs are ignored by so many, they have already been destroyed.