Friday, May 29, 2015

The Red Light Incivility

An excursion to the post office this morning generated angry shouts and fingered gestures from the driver in back of me when I failed to accelerate through a yellow light but instead stopped just as it turned red. His car actually shook from his interior motions and pounding of his dashboard. It certainly wasn’t my intent to enrage anyone. It was my intent to avoid either an accident or a ticket. However, I must admit to a certain degree of satisfaction that the other driver’s rage apparently was causing him so much distress. Uncivil of me.

Scarcely a day goes by without an article on the “incivility crisis” in America. They turn up both in left and right wing publications though naturally each tends to list the misdeeds of the other ideological group as examples. It goes far beyond politics though. According to a Weber Shandwick poll, 65% of Americans think incivility is a “major problem” that has worsened in the past decade, whether driving, shopping, working, or, of course, posting online. That doesn’t prevent 59% from admitting in a KRC Research survey to being uncivil themselves.

I’ve breathed the atmospheres of enough decades to have some basis for comparison, and it is my general sense that there really has been a trend toward more casual rudeness, but that the trend has been not nearly so significant as the change in our experience of it, particularly online. Without social media, we previously didn’t have the opportunity to experience as much casual cruelty from so many different people in so short a time. Often it is dressed up as candor. Tennessee Williams: “All cruel people describe themselves as paragons of frankness.” For anyone in the public eye, abuse arrives in a cascade. Sarah Jessica Parker recently said she does not read anything posted online about her because of “random cruelty.” Let’s be clear that rudeness is cruelty. It may not be physical abuse, but it generates pain nonetheless either by intent or by carelessness, usually the former.

In the wild, aggression is necessary for survival. We didn’t rid our instinct for it by moving from the wild to the suburbs. Aggression directed outward easily crosses the line into sadism and directed inward crosses into masochism. According to Freud both arise out of the death instinct. Nietzsche tied aggression to the Will to Power. Envy is particularly effective at bringing out the worst in us. All social animals make social comparisons and jockey for relative position; if we can’t raise ourselves up we are tempted to take others down. Researcher Hidehiko Takahashi found by means of fMRI scans that envy activates the same portions of the anterior cortex that are triggered by physical pain; conversely the pleasure centers light up when the envied folk face trouble. We are prewired for schadenfreude. Gore Vidal: “It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.”

To say it is normal to have such feelings, however, is not to say we need act in accordance with them. In Civilization and Its Discontents Freud argued that restraining our destructiveness was necessarily a cause of individual unhappiness but was the price of civilization. We don’t have to look far to see what happens when people fail to make that trade-off. Freud himself wasn’t too confident about the long-term prospects: “The fateful question of the human species seems to me to be whether and to what extent the cultural process developed in it will succeed in mastering the derangements of communal life caused by the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction.” He had hopes for the more constructive set of instincts associated with Eros. They do sound like more fun. To what extent common incivility and petty cruelty – as opposed to outright criminality – thwarts them is open to debate, but they probably don’t help.

I feel the temptation, though, to go for another drive. This time I think I’ll stop for two red lights.

Placebo: Every You, Every Me opening track to Cruel Intentions (1999)


  1. I feel your pain. Sounds like you were driving defensively, and the other guy aggressively. Either way, he was the one that got frustrated the most. I try and drive defensively too, and not break the rules, not speed, and the rest. The people here seem to drive more aggressive and speed, and they think if you are not they'll tailgate, but that doesn't work with me. I slow down more. It's a pet peeve with me for sure, and I try and avoid rush hour traffic for that reason. But I figure if a.) they don't hit me while driving around drunk, or b.) shoot me because I'm not driving how they want me to drive, it's a good day. They can honk or shoot me the finger all they want.

    I'm pretty sure the open carry handgun law on college campus will pass here. It does not sound like a good idea to me, because kids of that age can be pretty irrational, but it's a red state, so we'll see how that floats.

    1. I suppose somebody has to be the fastest driver on the road, but for everyone else tailgaters are inevitable. Even if you speed, drivers who are speedier yet will catch up. So, too, for that fastest guy, really, though his tailgater will have flashing red and blue lights. I don't speed up for anyone two feet off my bumper either.

  2. Ah the road rage conundrum. I admit I also slow down more when I see someone tailgating. It is so hard not to. But in most cases, I try not to let other people's antics get on my nerves. I don't take it personally. Most folks don't actively try to annoy you with their driving. I doubt they are paying attention that much (which might actually be scarier). My wife is on the other side of things. She get real angry, real fast at poor drivers. And she has a longer commute than I do, so I worry about her blood pressure. :)

    Online aggression does seem to be growing. But it depends on where you interact. I've had a genuinely polite and civil interaction on these blogs. But when I was writing reviews for websites I actually got some hate email. One of the worst was back in the late 90s when I was writing for the anime website. So that kind of nasty interaction has been around for a while. One of the film score forums I frequent can get intense with debate (silly fan debate, but debate none the less). But no one really descends to real nasty antics. But we do have some entertaining trolls that frequent and will often post religious or sexual stupidity. Most readers get a chuckle play along and then go back to debating if James Horner really does rip himself off in every film score he writes.

    1. There are folks who enjoy bar fights. You usually can pick them out as they circle the floor looking for someone to say or do something (or NOT say or do something) that they can pretend is fight-worthy. So, too, some folks seem to enjoy road anger, such as the fellow in back who gleefully lays on the horn if your response is a split second more than drag-race quick when the light turns green -- his hand must lie atop the horn in hopeful anticipation in order to beat your time. It must be satisfying. Glad to be of service, sir.

      Political sites are the worst, though over time the prevailing ideologues (whoever they might be) chase out the opposition. All the same, I have facebook friends of both left and right who post little else but "awful things said by the opposition" (usually out of context or misrepresented) at which they can express offense and outrage. I guess this is satisfying to the posters, but it is not ideologically convincing if that is the point. Of course, anyone in the public eye, not just politicos, catches some of this. The "Mean Tweets" segments on Jimmy Kimmel, in which celebrities read mean tweets about themselves, are always fun: