Broken Windows and Mimetic Desire

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s. Exodus 20:17

A fascinating study done by Dutch scholar and author Kees Keizer was widely reported on in the media recently. Keizer’s experiments confirmed the basic thesis of the so-called “Broken Windows Theory”, namely that petty crime and lawlessness are encouraged by urban disorder such as graffiti, broken windows and rubbish in the streets.

In one of Keizer’s studies 33 percent of bicycle riders littered an alley with flyers they found on their bicycles handlebars. However, after the alley wall was covered with graffiti, 69 percent of riders littered the alley with the flyers. As Keizer points out: Trespassing, littering and petty theft increase where there is visible evidence that others are ignoring the rules. The incentive to act in the appropriate way is drastically reduced when others behave inappropriately, which is why some have dubbed the theory “Monkey See Monkey Do”.

The tenth commandment is famous for its prohibition of covetousness, but implicit in it is another prohibition: Thou shalt not let your neighbour set the standard for your life. Think about it: Coveting your neighbours’ goods is in essence nothing but a mimicking act, a subtle admission that you do not have a life of your own. It is symptomatic of the herd mentality that characterises the broad road of life and in sharp contrast with the requirements for true discipleship, namely to go against the tide in obedience to Christ.

The narrow road, I once heard a preacher say, is the white line in the middle of a traffic-filled broad road that runs in one direction only. This thin white line, however, runs the other way.

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