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Stand up for Karen

We ought to be prepared to confront rulebreakers

When I moved back to London at the start of this year, something was noticeably different. It wasn’t the shiny new Elizabeth Line, nor was it the outdoor pissoirs that now dot the streets of Soho. No, this change is more pervasive, and hard to put a finger on at first. Step into almost any tube carriage, though, and there it will be: noise playing out loud from the smartphone of one of your fellow travellers.

Sometimes it’s music, or the sound effects of a game, or full-length videos. On a packed train recently a pair of lads decided to treat us all to the audio of Shrek via one of their phones. Most often it is just snatches of music or dialogue from one social media clip after another, which the viewer flicks through glassy-eyed and entranced, seemingly oblivious to the intrusion they are making on the people around them. The regularity with which I witness this has convinced me that a new social norm has been set: a critical mass of people now do not question that disturbing everyone’s peace in this way is something they are entitled to do.

Like a Chinese water torture, what began as a minor irritant has become, through its insistency, something that whips me up into a silent rage. Not only are these repetitive noises intensely annoying, but I find the selfishness of the behaviour and the shamelessness of the perpetrators infuriating in its own right.

Some obnoxious individual seemed to have appointed themself DJ for that commute

After some months of contenting myself with glaring at the backs of offenders’ heads and fantasising about telling them off, something inside me finally shifted. Once again, some obnoxious individual in my tube carriage seemed to have appointed themself DJ for that commute. As I was about to step off the train, the source of the sound was identified as a smartphone playing at full volume from the trouser pocket of a man who was dozing with eyes closed.

“Excuse me,” I said as I passed him, “is that noise coming from your phone?”

He confirmed that it was.

“Well, I don’t think everyone wants to listen to it.”

“Oh,” he replied.

Since that encounter, it’s been my mission to remind every public phone-noise-player in London of this fact. Usually, politely asking if they would mind turning off the noise has the desired effect. Not always, though: on one occasion a man to whom I made this request retorted that “it’s already off, I can hardly hear it!” I saw this comment as confirmation of my hypothesis: social expectations have shifted such that some people assume it is their right to subject those around them to Candy Crush on full blast if they so choose. This man presumably believed he was being generously civic-minded by restricting the volume at all.

I will readily admit that this new hobby is profoundly uncool

I will readily admit that this new hobby is profoundly uncool; I’ve also been told it makes me “a Karen”. It is very much not “chill” to care about the conduct of other people in public spaces. This is something that the conservative commentator Helen Andrews found out earlier this year, when she was subjected to a Twitter pile-on for remarking on the large numbers of people she observed dodging fares on the Washington metro. “Most people have meaningful lives to lead. I am sorry that you do not,” read one reply. Others called her a “creep” or a “cop-for-hire”.

Similar sentiments in the United States are regularly expressed with regard to soaring rates of shoplifting by brazen organised criminals: the decent thing to do is to mind your own business and not have a problem with it. “As someone who worked retail for many years […] I think shoplifting is cool for the most part,” reads one representative tweet from a few months ago. “I never said a word when people steal […] cause I’m not a weird carceral loser.”

This, as the commentator, Armand Domalewski, points out, is something we could call “moral freeriding”. If everyone felt free to help themselves from the shelves, shops would quickly go out of business. Calling those who disapprove of crime and antisocial behaviour a “creep” or “loser” is only something you can do if you trust that such creeps and losers will continue to exist, so that the amenities we all enjoy can remain viable.

All of us benefit from certain social norms being in place: don’t steal, don’t blare TikTok videos in public places, don’t pull down your pants and defecate in the middle of the street. For any given social norm, there will be some occasions where people are tempted to transgress. If there are no consequences when they do, then they and others will be emboldened to do so more, and bit by bit, by entropy, the standard will break down.

If you believe that a certain rule should be upheld, then all else being equal, you ought to be prepared to say something when people break it. Norms don’t maintain themselves; there has to be an enforcement mechanism. For better or worse, that enforcement often comes in the form of social pressure from sanctimonious busybodies. Next time you’re tempted to mock them, remember that it’s the Karens standing between us and anarchy.

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