The fragility of human civilisation

Right now I am spending three days in Dublin. This afternoon I was driving through the city centre, and as I was driving down a very busy street a car came up on the lane to my right, from behind me, and without any warning whatsoever and with screeching tyres pushed into my lane in front of me, and achieved this by driving so close to the right side of my car that he hit my wing mirror, blowing his horn and making hand gestures of a graphic kind. He was driving a Mercedes sports car.

I was not pleased, but didn’t do anything beyond also briefly blowing my horn. We then proceeded to the next street and I lost sight of him. But there at the next traffic light we ended up next to each other in adjacent lanes. Seeing me again – and I did nothing – he got out of the car, insisted I wind down my window (which I did) and then informed me: “I’m going to crack your f***ing head open’. Before I could say anything he thumped his fist on to the top of my car. He then returned to his own car and drove off. I reported the incident to the police, as I don’t believe that such behaviour should go entirely unchecked. He’ll do it again otherwise. Well, he probably will anyway.

From his car, and indeed from his clothes, it was clear that this man is solidly middle class and probably a respected member of the community. But what community is that?  How can we be so insecure that we can so easily become monsters, and that we don’t see the monstrosity as a major cause for alarm? Of course there is plenty of research on road rage. In 1997 a presentation given to the British Psychological Society found that road rage perpetrators were likely to be ‘older, better off and more respectable’. In his paper John Groeger, then Professor of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Surrey, warned that road rage risked becoming ‘a legitimate form of anti-social behaviour’.

In fact, it shares with all other violent behaviour the characteristic that it may go unchecked because, so often, the victims are intimidated. Of course in some cases road rage can emerge between two active participants (and the same research indicated it was usually men against men, and women against women – rarely men against women), but where that is not the case it is quite likely that the victim will just let it go. I suspect our society is too vulnerable for that to be a safe option. And in all honesty, I tend to doubt that these raging pillars of the community are wonderfully peaceful and sensitive human beings in all other contexts and settings.

So, if ever I see something like this again, targeted against another fellow road user, I shall try to make sure that I volunteer to the victim to be a witness. We have to try to make at least some effort to protect our fragile community.

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25 Comments on “The fragility of human civilisation”

  1. John Says:

    That is quite terrifying. I am really glad you reported the incident to the police and hope they will actually follow up on the report as he quite likely will do this again. Lucky he didn’t actually physically assault you.

  2. Trich Says:

    Frightening Ferdinand! I’m pleased you reported it to the Guards.
    Hope you enjoy the rest of your stay in Dublin.

  3. John Carter Says:

    So many people seem to be on the edge in cities. Watching out and making allowances for leader types and the clearly incompetent becomes second nature in all walks of life. On motorways and country roads it’s easy to spot them if you’re paying any sort of attention. In dense city streets you often don’t get a lot of warning.

  4. Al Says:

    Sorry about that
    My own car wouldnt start and I had to use the mercedes…

  5. no-name Says:

    You know, though, that the guards are very unlikely to do anything about it? It is they, after all, who allow taxis to park on the double yellow lines and the pedestrian crossings right in the city centre (around the corner from the city centre Garda Station). The last time I spoke to a guard about it (he was walking by a taxi parked on the pedestrian crossing) he started hassling me. The conversation went something like this:

    Me: “Excuse me, have you noticed all of those illegally parked taxis, particularly the one parked on the pedestrian crossing?”

    Guard (aggressively): “What’s your problem?”

    Me: “The illegally parked taxis which are endangering other road users, especially pedestrians.”

    Guard (angrily): “There’s no point in me moving them on, they’ll only come back.”

    Me: “Isn’t it your job to issue tickets for such illegal activity?”

    Guard: “What’s your name?”

    Me: “That’s not relevant. What are you going to do about it?”

    Guard: “Nothing.”

    Me: “So, you are going to ignore this illegal activity?”

    Guard: “Yes, I am. And I will continue to do so.”

    (I repeat: this is not a fabrication).

    Of course, I have this guard’s id number, but my experience of the Garda Station in question is that they’ll find some reason to make my life difficult if I report him. So you see, in Ireland, it’s not just the road ragers who seek to intimidate other members of the community.

    In order to be an activist witness one needs the co-operation of the official protectors. That does not seem to exist in this country, depending,of course, on who you are. If you are the child of somebody rich and famous you can, evidently, falsify your passport and not be fined €10,000. On the other hand, in northern European countries, this sort of community activism works very well and the police usually seem to be on the right side of the law. The result is that you can walk and drive around city centres without expecting such trouble, unlike in Dublin.

    • anna notaro Says:

      isn’it Ireland a northern European country? And is what happens in Dublin typical of what happens in other Irish cities?

      • Al Says:

        1- geographically yes, but ….
        2- I would be of the opinion that Dublin would be ahead of the rest fo the country in policing best practice, but …

        So, but….

      • no-name Says:

        Yes Anna, you’re right, I meant the northern part of the continent.

        As for your second question here is a quote that tells of a recent example of policing outside of Dublin which made headlines:

        “The tape captured members of the garda joking about threatening to deport and rape a female protester who had refused to give her name during her arrest. At one point, a garda could be heard saying: “Give me your name and address or I’ll rape you.”

        Another quote from the same incident:

        “When one Garda, surmised that one of the women “sounds like a Yank or Canadian”, another garda said: “Well, whoever, we’ll get immigration f**king on her.”

        http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/breaking/2011/0406/breaking19.html

        The police involved will not face charges.

        http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/breaking/2011/0728/breaking63.html

  6. anna notaro Says:

    *How can we be so insecure that we can so easily become monsters, and that we don’t see the monstrosity as a major cause for alarm?* I’m going to muse, rather incoherently I fear, about this…

    I am not so sure that our insecurity is the unique reason which turns people into monsters, literature, poetry have explored the Jeckyll & Hyde, or to use a classic metaphor, the Janus face of the human soul in memorable pages. The ‘monster’ is initially presented as the ‘other’, the one different from us, only to discover by the end that it ‘hides’ within ourselves, in all of us (this summer marks the 40th anniversary of the social psychology experiment in which psychologist Philip Zimbardo placed participants in a simulated prison environment in order to explore how situational variables impact human behavior. http://tinyurl.com/3aonpjl).

    Isn’it fragility the condition of our existence and its awareness the motivation behind so many of the achievements of our civilization? Should we really be so shocked when episodes like the one you describe, as banal as only evil can be, remind us exactly of that fragility, that the monster is never far but inside? That the ‘fabric’ of our communties can be torn apart in a matter of a few hours, as the recent UK riots have demonstrated?

    The city has often been the stage for the ‘monstrosity’ (monstro/city’) to express itself, the city as a Darwinian ‘urban jungle’ has featured in many novels, sociologists like Simmel, Benjamin, Kracauer, have all described urban modernity in terms of alienation, and Baudelaire has mused on ‘the growing destitution of men in the great city’. The city as a place of alienation has often been constructed as a performative, dark space which mirrors the even darkest one within ourselves. And aren’t cars, the ultimate tokens of western consumerism and modern civilization, the perfect space for that inner rage to mount and explode..the movie Falling Down (1993) comes to mind, the opening scene captures this rather well:

    The words city and civilization share the same Latin root: we can only advance towards a state of progress by living together, that is blessing but also our curse…

  7. John Says:

    I was on the receiving end of some road rage that ended up in an accident and the writing off my car.

    On single carriageway with high kerbing on both sides, an oncoming kamikaze driver decided to swing out from behind a stationary bus even though I was (in my lane and) already adjacent to the bus’s nose. I slowed as quickly as I could without causing a pile up and laid on my horn. Pedestrians waiting at the bus stop to my left started screaming in anticipation of impact. The kamikaze attacker missed the bus’s nose but tore the driver’s side off of my car. I can still see his face as he drove directly at me.

    In shock, I rolled forward until the kerbing became low enough to mount and safely abandon my car. The bus driver (presumably a witness) pulled out and drove on. A van driver directly behind him had a bird’s eye view of visibility behind the bus before the manoeuvre and kindly stopped to offer his contact details for police/insurance.

    The other driver claimed his indicator was lit and therefore he had a right of way.

    Now that I had a witness and both of us were unhurt I hesitated about whether to call the police. Before I could decide they drove past and I flagged them to stop. After 20 minutes of radio traffic they discovered he was driving with fake plates and had no tax displayed. Columbo might also have observed that his shiny new driving licence and very English-sounding name appeared an unlikely fit, but this is incidental to the accident.

    Rather amazingly they decided to rap his knuckles over failing to display a tax disc, and to be similarly lenient over driving with vanity plates registered to another person. They pointed him in the direction of Homebase to walk off and have the car’s own plate printed. The police assured me he admitted liability to them and they would confirm this to any insurance company.

    It’s now two months after the accident and my car has been written off as my insurer doesn’t fancy fixing it. I’m still waiting on my policy excess to be refunded as liability cannot be established. His admission of liability to police is irrelevant as no incident report was filed. His insurer won’t accept the witness statement as their client has remained incommunicado throughout. He’s probably still driving while I’m now getting the bus.

    To sweeten the pill I am still paying monthly instalments on an insurance policy which is now extinct. Apparently the terms of my monthly credit agreement are still in force irrespective of what happens the underlying policy.

  8. cormac Says:

    Ferdinand, your experience sounds v like that scene in McEwan’s novel ‘Saturday’. Hope he didn’t follow you home!
    More seriously, there seem to be two types of car crazies out there; those who drive like this habitually, and those who were angry before they got into the car today. I suspect the latter occurs much more often than you might think, and an angry person driving is raelly scary,even for a passenger. Maybe police should have ang-analysers too.

  9. Vince Says:

    It must keep the Merc management awake nights hoping and praying that they never have the same problem as Chav check. Or even the trip the ******* coat underwent as the outergarment of choice for bookies, bank robbers and auctioneers. All that’s needed is a very few more stories like this one.

  10. John Carter Says:

    I’d just like to thank Anna for, if not removing the dent in Ferdy’s car, giving it an adequately referenced contextualization.

  11. John Carter Says:

    Right, having got that out of my cystern, it’s back to bed. Wake me when civilisation is less frail and the middle class has become less solid.

  12. no-name Says:

    “In primis igitur omnis sui vitiosa iactatio est, eloquentiae tamen in oratore praecipue, adfertque audientibus non fastidium modo sed plerumque etiam odium.” Quintilian, “The Orator’s Education”, 11.16

  13. ObsessiveMathsFreak Says:

    In 1997 a presentation given to the British Psychological Society found that road rage perpetrators were likely to be ‘older, better off and more respectable’.

    And how do you think these guys made it to where they are? It wasn’t by holding doors open for people I can tell you.

    Many in senior positions got where they are by being pushy, ignorant and self centred. The problem is not that anyone wanted this to happen, but that the system is set up to promote this kind of behaviour. This man has likely been rewarded for behaviour such as this for most of his life.

    P.S.
    You should have keyed the Merc.


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