Friday, 16 December 2011

A favourite photo from 2011

This photograph was taken at the Cliffs of Moher, a spectacular place on the west coast of County Clare in Ireland, where the shale and sandstone cliffs rise 700 feet straight up above the Atlantic Ocean.   It's an enormously popular tourist attraction; Janet and I were travelling by bicycle, but on this bright July day the parking lot was full of cars and tour buses and the place was packed.  It's really well set up - there are carefully constructed pathways and an interpretive centre and even a watchtower you can climb to get a grand view of the birds and the blue ocean and the vertigo-inducing cliffs - with the Aran Islands off in the distance of Galway Bay.  I say this just to make the point that there is absolutely no need for anyone to be in this photograph.  You don't need to stand where these people are standing to get a really big thrill from the Cliffs of Moher.

I love this picture because it can mean almost anything.  It makes me smile every time I look at it.  (You too?) The sign is very clear.  Its intended message is impossible to ignore.  Don't go any further!  In big letters.  In three languages. And yet you can see from the well-trodden path on the far side that it is routinely ignored.  It looks like its only practical function is to provide a convenient place for people to hang their jackets.

Now the people who put the sign there were on to something.  The edge of the cliff is a bit precarious.  As the picture below shows, it really is a perilously long way down from the top to the rocks and sea at the bottom.  How do I know?  Well of course I took that picture from a convenient patch of grass just past the sign.

So, what are we all doing when we ignore the sign?  Are we trying to prove something to ourselves, that we've got guts?  Or that we're different, that we're not like all those well-behaved folks in the tour buses, who are buying ice cream cones at the concession?  Or is it that we can somehow feel brave and safe at the same time, because while we aren't supposed to go past the sign, there are lots of other people milling around who don't look like they are about to fall to their death.

And so let me stretch these thoughts a bit.  Does the fact that so many folks are blithely disobeying the sign say something about our general attitude towards rules and authority?  We are so surrounded by commands and dictates and warnings and advice and cautionary words.  Coffee cups tell us the startling news that the beverage we are about to enjoy may actually be hot.  If you look at the signs in some of the city parks in Vancouver the list of prohibitions is so long that you sometimes wonder whether there is really anything permitted at all?  And so are we just tuning it all out?  On this day the folks we saw did not seem at all deterred by the presence of a "rule" or the evident view of "authority" that it would be unsafe to travel further along the cliff.  The fact that it was not "permitted" seemed irrelevant.

Maybe if there were fewer rules, we might be more inclined to respect them?  But then, how would all of us lawyers stay busy?

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