We've all seen it onscreen. A heartless killer strides down the street, possibly doing a voice over of their latest crime. They pass a man who throws a candy wrapper unconcernedly over his shoulder. Which one do we want to die by the end of the movie? Of course it's the litterbug. Why?
One major factor that helps us condemn those who commit minor offenses is that we see them as "those who commit minor offenses." If we were monitoring every person in the world throughout their lives, we'd have to go far to find anyone who hasn't been rude to someone at some point. Almost all of us have snapped at someone due to stress, or ignored someone because we were preoccupied with our own thoughts, or, through awkwardness, said something that has caused offense. At least, that's how we think of it. A team studying conflict in the workplace showed that those we offended probably had a very different view. While the perpetrator of an offensive action sees it as a thing they did once and that is now concluded, the injured party sees it as an ongoing problem that was still causing tension. The perpetrator also sees the "crime" as having a reason behind it, even if it isn't a good reason. The victim sees it as gratuitous and random. It's natural enough that the person who caused the problem and the person who suffered from it have different views, but it establishes a pattern in how people see the world. We once did something wrong because of a specific stressor. They are just the type of person who does bad things.
If this were the only reason behind our antipathy towards offenders, we would surely still instinctively condemn a murderer more strongly than we would a litterbug. There has to be a fundamental difference between the behaviors that sets off rage over the petty crimes rather than the major ones. A couple of studies suggest what that difference is. One study took a look at relations on Cyprus, noting that Greek people there vehemently looked down on littering, not just because it was unpleasant, but because they saw it as being a sign of Turkish culture and infiltration. Another examined the creep of immigration laws in the United States. An act that began as a way to deport immigrants for serious crimes eventually came to bar people permanently from the US for offenses like writing a forged check or shoplifting. Minor offenses, in both cases, don't serve just as testimonies to enduring bad habits, but are signifiers of entire "bad" groups of people.
Looked at through this lens, minor bad offenses take on new significance. Someone who is rude to a waiter isn't just someone who habitually is rude to workers, but one of that group of sadistic people with a little extra cash who get a kick out of abusing those with less power. Someone who throws things on the ground is the type that expects other people, people like you or me, to either pick up after them or to live in their filth. They want to ruin it for us.
Compared to this, things like murder seems admirably egalitarian. Anyone, from any class, group, or ethnicity, can commit murder. This is especially true in pop-culture, where we witness a lot of murders. The act in and of itself doesn't set a person apart. Keying a car does. Still, the idea of an offender being symbolizing a group that we hate can spill over into larger crimes, if the circumstances are right. While we may sympathize with a murderer who goes to prison, or even a murderer who remains free (as in most of pop-culture), we hate someone who is one of those classes of people that can go to court and get away with murder. It's not the crime we hate. It's the fact that it's committed by that sort. You know. Them.
In the end, though, we might hate minor offenses over major ones because we're most exposed to minor offenses. Obnoxious behavior dogs everyone, during every part of their day. Bad drivers, rude people, disorganized people who slow us down at the check-out counter, they all frustrate us daily. Serial killers, unless we are part of a police force or the FBI, don't enter into our daily routine. (Although I have to wonder if law enforcement officers look at killers on TV differently.) It's easier to hate viscerally than abstractly. And perhaps it's more than that. We're not just exposed to minor offenses, we're powerless to stop them.
A paper published in the Revue Francaise de Sociologie defines social norms as things we can publicly object to without being publicly reprimanded. Put in that perspective, murder is a pretty safe bet when it comes to something you can object to. Anything you do to prevent a murder, including killing the would-be murderer, will not get you reprimanded. Not so with other problem behaviors. There's no way to reprimand someone for having a snippy tone without having a snippier tone. There's no way to yell at someone for making an encounter unpleasant without making the encounter even more unpleasant. And can you really break in on someone's rude conversation with a waitress, parking attendant, or secretary without being ruder or more awkward than they are?
The things that really make people fuming mad tend to be things that we can rarely speak up about without blowing the problem out of proportion. This is why people are so glad to vent their anger when anyone brings up petty offenses. They're finally in a situation when they can express the full frustration they feel. Everyone has had experience with these kind of minor irritations, so outrage over relatively minor stuff becomes huge. That outrage, of course, doesn't solve the problem. We have pop-culture for that. On TV, or in movies, people can get a glimpse into their fantasy coming true. Finally, all those nasty people who have ruined things for the rest of us are personified and their neck is collectively snapped by our hero. What a relief it is to watch. What's a little murder compared to that?