Warning signs – beware

The proliferation of moron-friendly warning signs mirrors a political climate that talks tough and acts weak.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Politics

In an episode of the 1984 BBC comedy about house-sharing students, The Young Ones, Mike and Vyvyan are having trouble getting their video player to work. Mike suggests that maybe Vyvyan shouldn’t have poured washing-up liquid into it.

‘But it says here’, says Vyvyan, ‘“Ensure machine is clean and free from dust”’. ‘Yeah’, says Mike, ‘but it doesn’t say “Ensure machine is full of washing-up liquid”’. ‘No’, replies Vyvyan. ‘But it doesn’t say, “Ensure machine isn’t full of washing-up liquid”.’ ‘Well, it wouldn’t, would it?’, says Mike. ‘I mean, it doesn’t say, “Ensure you don’t chop up your video machine with an axe, put all the bits in a plastic bag, and bang ’em down the lavatory”.’

‘It doesn’t?’, says Vyvyan, picking up the video player. ‘Maybe that’s where we’re going wrong….’

Adrian Edmondson’s character Vyvyan is a moron. It has to be spelt out for him in the most blindingly obvious way what he should and should not do. Yet the likes of Vyvyan have become unwitting role models for today, as we are increasingly being treated like morons. One of the most subtle changes in the public sphere over the past 10 years has been the proliferation of moron-friendly warning signs.

Each separate sign tells us about a particular aspect of our society – about our fascination with risk, about the perceived state of law and order, about our propensity to seek litigation wherever possible. But in essence, the warning sign phenomenon mirrors a political climate that talks tough and acts weak. In short, these signs are a sign of impotent authoritarianism.

On many London buses there are currently two signs warning passengers that certain behaviour will result in a fine – with a staggering discrepancy between the monetary punishment for each. We are warned of the cost of bunking a ride: ‘Failure to pay fare – £5.’ And then we are warned of the punishment for lighting up: ‘No Smoking. Maximum penalty £1000.’

Is smoking on a bus really 200 times worse than fare evasion? Obviously not. But the massive gulf between these fines suggests that fare evasion is now done by so many people that it has become a fact of life – while smoking in public is fast becoming a taboo.

This disparity between fines on London buses shows that warning signs are really about ‘sending out the right message’ – that some types of behaviour just will not be tolerated. As a sign in the Millennium Dome used to sneer: ‘Smoking is not big, it’s not clever, and it is not allowed.’

If the hostility to smoking in public is a symptom of the new hectoring moralism, then the feeble notice about fare evasion suggests that many now accept criminal behaviour as inevitable. When the police put up posters that bark ‘Warning: pickpockets operating in this area’, or ‘Motorists! Thieves are about!’, they might as well announce in bold letters ‘Crime happens! You deal with it!’.

Far from showing a serious determination to deal with crime, these kinds of signals merely betray impotence – like those signs buskers on the Underground are so fond of performing beneath: ‘No busking. Penalty £200.’

This kind of vacuous finger-wagging used to be the preserve of students’ union establishments. I remember a sign at Manchester University’s students’ union bar that said: ‘Anybody found making homophobic, sexist or racist remarks will be asked to leave.’ I also remember students making lots of homophobic and sexist remarks, but never being asked to leave. Many of today’s leading politicians started out as worthy, ban-happy students – so it’s not surprising that it is today’s so-called liberals who are keen to ban ‘inappropriate’ or ‘offensive’ behaviour.

Today’s warning signs use pleading language rather than firmly telling us what we can and cannot do. We are rarely told ‘Don’t smoke!’ – but instead, ‘Visitors/patrons are kindly asked not to smoke’. Jumping on the eco-bandwagon, Hammersmith Broadway shopping centre in west London recently erected signs saying ‘This broadway is a no-smoking environment’ – to go with its other empathetically correct warning signs: ‘Warning – these premises are protected by CCTV’, ‘Warning – do not attempt to board buses waiting at the traffic lights’, ‘For your safety and comfort please wait inside the bus station until your bus arrives’, ‘Please don’t drop litter – please take it home – thank you’….

Oh please. Give us a break.

Many establishments clearly feel they have to state the obvious for fear of litigation – such as when you see a slippery floor with a sign saying ‘Warning: slippery floor’, complete with a picture of a stick man who looks like he is breakdancing. Packets of peanuts warn us that this product ‘May contain traces of nuts’, while the labels on children’s clothes say, ‘Keep away from fire’. Such signs suggest that in our clean, comfortable and healthy world, we have maximised our fears about risk.

Or is it the result of what you could call the cretinisation of Britain? The tendency to treat us all like children, running around with pens in our mouths, sticking wet fingers into plug sockets, going for a swim in the sea in the middle of a thunderstorm wearing just a metal helmet? There is the suspicion that, like Vyvyan, we are incapable of looking after ourselves without the guiding hand of Big Mother – we have to be told what we should already know, because it is for our own good.

In another episode of The Young Ones, there was a spoof public information film. The announcer explains the carnage that ensues when a car careers off the road, concluding: ‘Think once. Think twice. Think: don’t drive on the pavement.’ You have been warned.

Patrick West is the author of Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes it Really is Cruel to be Kind, Civitas, 2004. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

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Topics Politics


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