Some years ago, as a judge on one of adland’s more obscure international awards panels, I had to assess the creative merits of a commercial which discouraged defecating on railway lines. Mercifully, the ad in question didn’t actually show anybody defecating, and the voiceover was in Hindi, so I had no idea what it was about until the Indian judge sitting next to me explained. In many parts of the subcontinent, she told me, the absence of domestic plumbing obliges people to perform their ablutions al fresco. But in areas with a high leopard or tiger population it’s not a good idea to do this alone.
So the womenfolk repair en masse to some secluded grove each morning, while the men head for the nearest railway line, the jacked-up track being a clean and relatively comfortable place to sit. This advertisement, then, was to encourage those men to emulate the modesty of their wives and daughters and find a less public place to poo, right? Wrong. Apparently, such gatherings are also a forum for debate, and Indian men being passionate in their opinions, that debate sometimes drowns out the sound of approaching trains – with gruesome consequences. I said that while this was very sad I couldn’t believe it happened often enough to warrant a government ad campaign. ‘After all,’ I said, ‘the train driver would hit the brakes as soon as he saw people on the track.’ ‘Not if the area is predominantly Muslim and the driver is a Hindu,’ sighed my co-panellist.
In Australia, of course, it’s unacceptable to defecate anywhere other than a toilet, and anyone who is forced to do so – through ill health or bad planning – may be sure that it won’t get them killed.
But as a certain middle-aged Queenslander is now finding out, it may get them crucified. The ‘poo-jogger’, for the benefit of Speccie readers without an Instagram account, is a man who was recently photographed relieving himself in the grounds of a Brisbane apartment complex. The photograph was taken by a motion-activated camera set up expressly for this purpose after waste of a non-canine provenance was found on the same footpath several times in previous days. I don’t know if the man was prosecuted, or if he even broke the law, but I do know that soon after the photograph found its way onto social media he lost his job, and it’s fair to assume that if he has a family, this incident has caused them considerable distress. As much distress, perhaps, as if their husband/father/brother had been convicted of a serious white-collar crime. And who knows what kind of long-term effect such public shaming will have on the man himself?
Yet he didn’t hurt anyone or steal anything; he just did something odd and antisocial. And according to psychologists’ evaluations, the fact that he did it repeatedly suggests that rather than being motivated by any particular animus, he has mental health issues. Not so long ago, a story this inconsequential would barely have made the local paper. But I first saw the ‘poo-jogger’ photo in the Guardian – a publication which used to pride itself on eschewing stories which give off even the faintest whiff of the gutter. In these digital times, it seems, the suppliers of quality journalism – especially those which refuse to put up a paywall – are increasingly subject to the market forces which determine the editorial policies of their most salacious competitors. That is to say, when a story reaches a tipping point in terms of social media attention, they daren’t not cover it.
The participation of mainstream media in such unseemly feeding frenzies doesn’t just extend the life of a story exponentially; it also multiplies the problems the story may cause its subjects. At time of writing, as far as I know, that middle aged man in Brisbane is still alive. But it’s fair to say the life he knew until a few weeks ago is over. Which means that if you were one of the many thousands of Australians who liked, shared, tweeted or retweeted that photograph, for just the few frivolous seconds it took you to do so, you were driving the train.
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