I am rarely calm as I drive through San Francisco. From an objective perspective, driving in this absurd city has indeed become intolerable — construction on every corner, the city gutted by the utilities, lanes eliminated to make room for trees and bikes and, on top of it all, an inundation of new, douchebag entitled drivers all conspire to make it impossible to go literally one block without mayhem.
When I’m out there trying to navigate these streets, everyone is a douchebag — except me, of course (one of my favorite tweets was courtesy of someone I don’t even follow, Timmy @mcgoin_nowhere: Congratulations everybody in the world for all being tied for the most shitty driver in the world). The things that fly from my mouth on a daily basis include a greatest hits from “The Wire”: Get the fuck out of the way, you fucking shitbird! Fucking drive, fucknuts! What the fuck fuck, fuckwad? My son’s vocabulary is now distinctive amongst his peers.
Whenever I see other drivers fly into a rage — when I see them through the window silently gesticulate their madness, scream, curse, and wish intense physical harm upon their fellow citizens — I am humbled. It’s ugly to behold. And the fact is that despite whatever justifications I might offer, I am that driver, driven to the brink of madness daily because another driver hasn’t accelerated fast enough. Ensconced in our two tons of steel, we quickly and mercilessly condemn the slightest perception of wrongdoing. All sense of the humanity of others disappears, the machine affording the aegis of invincible anonymity.
We witness the same thing online in the infamous comment sections, the casual ease with which strangers let loose upon strangers with a stream of ad hominem bile. I, for one, have been called everything under the sun online by people I’ve never met nor will ever meet, usually based on their poor reading of my poorly written screeds.
We see the same thing in war. Through a sniper scope or from the all seeing eye of a predator drone, the humanity of other people has a tendency to dissipate. In the American drone attacks, we can’t even say how many people have been killed, not to mention who’s been killed. This is not due to government secrecy; it’s due to ignorance born of the indifference technology proffers. When a remote control robot kills someone, the humanity of that someone is so irrelevant that we don’t even care whether we killed the “right” person (let’s put aside that creepiness for the moment).
There is a continuum that runs from road rage to cruel comments to predator drones. This is by no means to conflate these things. For the most part, road rage and cruel comments don’t kill people. But there is something disturbing about the way certain technology provides a distance that lets us vent the basest aspects of our wills. It breeds a culture that lets us believe that a drone attack is not only a viable option but a good one.
This is not to say that the driver’s rage or commenter’s vitriol is always base and undeserved. Most drivers are indeed selfish douchebags and deserve a shit storm of insults. And, no doubt, much of my own prose and ideas deserve the nasty attacks on my personhood.
Meanwhile, if technology has a way of stripping other people of their humanity that allows for ready hatred and insult, face to face we tend to be too non-confrontational. In American culture, at least, we’ll hurl the nastiest crap at other drivers or in comments online but, in person, we’re all smiles. We dread conflict. I have a friend who, whenever she’s asked to do something by some acquaintance she doesn’t even like, first bitches to me — and then goes to meets this person smiling broadly! Oy! Who wins in that situation?
In this world of smiles, we deny the humanity of others, as well. We treat them not as individuals with quirks and ticks and likes and dream, we treat them as an anonymous force to be managed with a friendly hello and smile, a bourgeois blow off. Of course, often a friendly hello and smile is nice and, like the occasional mean comment, well deserved. But like road rage, trolling comments, and predator drones, the obsequious smile denies individual humanity.
This whole equation of social exchange is out of whack. Armed with technology, we’re nasty and brutish, even for the slightest of offenses. And then, when our time and energy is really on the line, we avoid conflict at all costs (at least in most places outside of Manhattan. In the Manhattan of my childhood, people confronted each other often, banging on taxi hoods, letting loose on a subway platform for someone budging. Whenever I’ve done the same here in San Francisco, people look at me like I’m a nut job. Sure, they’ll fuck over another driver, wish him and his family dead, offer caustic comments anonymously on some news website, but actually confront another human being in the flesh? You’d have to be some kind of deranged asshole to do that!)
How, then, are we relate to each other? I believe there is a distanced respect we call politeness. The function of politeness is to let other people be amidst the ever increasing throngs of predominantly urban life. To some, the formality of politeness is dehumanizing. But I prefer to see it another way: it allows maximum difference by allowing you to be you, me to be me, without judgment and snooping into each other’s business.
This is a lesson I learned from William Burroughs, not exactly that icon of propriety. But while his imagery is often shocking, and while he lived most of his life as a junkie, he believed not in social protocol but in social tact — in knowing the right thing to say at the right time. I’ve written about precisely this before so I’ll try to avoid excessive redundancy. But to quote myself despite its awkward phrasing, True social protocol is not what’s inherited or determined by others but through the skills of tact: reckoning the here and now by perceiving and discerning.
It’s difficult to figure out how to address each other these days. We live part of our lives in our neighborhoods, sure, but we also live more and more at work and of course online. We are often strangers to the people who live across the hall or across the street not to mention all the people we interact with online who live god knows where. And, at the same, we are each of us multiple — we have multiple lives, multiple identities, multiple needs and desires. Who sees which self, in what voice, in what mode of address?
Ah, but politeness allows us to be all of our selves while letting all those around us be their multiple selves. To be polite says: I wanna be me and I wanna let you be you and, as we all live jammed here together, let’s not muck it all up by sticking our noses where they don’t belong. Let’s give each other room to be ourselves.
Does this mean we shouldn’t occasionally get in someone else’s face? That we need always to be quiet around each other? Proper? No, I’m not saying that at all. I am saying that there is a practice of tact that seeks the humanity within a situation, a humanity that may very well involve calling someone out on his or her douchebaggery, playing music loud, flipping the bird.
This is obviously a longer discussion of ethics in an increasingly crowded, interconnected world both virtual and physical. So, for now, I offer this: politeness can go a long way towards maintaining a balance of distance and respect that lets a multifarious world of multifarious selves enjoy this multifarious life.
After all, we all live in this world together, sharing the roads both paved and virtual, sharing the air and bar stools and economy. And it seems to me that it might behoove us to behave with a tad more couth towards each other — not just if we want to survive but if we want to live with a sense of enjoyment and pleasure.