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.