Wanted: An Outbreak of Civility

Back in March I almost became a pedestrian statistic when I chose to tangle with an impatient motorist and learned the hard way you can’t stop a car with your bare hands. The encounter catapulted me into the street on the back of my head, landed me in the E.R., and threw my autonomic nervous system seriously out-of-whack.

Kaiser therapist Sue Davis offered me tools to get some balance back. But after a few sessions, she said, “I want you to think about this: your sense of what’s right and wrong led you to put your life in danger. Maybe you could write an essay about that?”

I started pondering my own notions of right and wrong, and all the ideas that are present in our culture. I grew up in a family of people who know what’s right and are not afraid to set you straight. I hadn’t really thought before about how that was related to my work of doing right and trying to make the world a better place for pedestrians.

In this matter of the crash it was clear that I was wrong, at least by some standards. I got launched because I held onto a car, trying to stop it, while the driver accelerated. Didn’t I understand physics? The police officer who responded lectured me on my folly. The driver’s insurance adjuster determined that I was more at fault than her client. The attorney I consulted said that the moment I touched the car I crossed a line and cut the legs out from under any case I might have had. One of the witnesses called me, weeks after the incident, to let me know he thought I was at fault.

On the other hand, there were those to whom it was perfectly clear that the driver was wrong. She had honked at me to get out of her way when I was crossing with the walk light, shouted at me when I tried to talk to her, and floored the accelerator when I tried to keep her from going on in front of me. These listeners were indignant on my behalf and shocked that the driver hadn’t been charged. Friend after friend offered sympathy and support, and many related their own frightening interactions with rude drivers.

My husband, Scott, didn’t see that right and wrong came into it. “You weren’t wrong,” he said. “You just made a tactical mistake. You never should have moved from in front of the car. You had the physical advantage, and you gave it up.”

As I thought about the many faces of right and wrong I asked my friends and family to explore the subject with me. Is there a continuum of righteousness? I imagined that at one end might be the struggle for social justice. Isn’t it right to work to change what is wrong, to undo injustices and to rectify inequalities? Was Rosa Parks right or wrong when she refused to move to the back of the bus? Did right or wrong enter into it? What about the lone man who stood up to the tanks in Tiananmen Square? What would Gandhi have done in my crosswalk?

And if there is a spectrum, what’s at the other end? Shushing someone at the symphony, or sweetly informing a litterbug, “Pardon me, you dropped something…”? Can we possibly hope to raise the level of civility by correcting uncivil behavior? No one responds well to scolding.

I learned a lot about the convictions of my friends. One dear friend is so passionate about what he thinks is right and wrong in bicycling that he rides after and catches up to miscreants who run red lights on their bikes so he can lecture them on how they make all bicyclists look bad. But another, hearing about that, asked if he would have told Rosa Parks she was making Blacks look bad? Yet another recounted how, while riding MAX, she snatched the cigarette from the fingers of a young person who had the temerity to light up, quite illegally – and crushed it under her heel. “What possessed me,” she wondered afterward. “I could have been shot.”

I thought about the behavior of a motorist who passed Scott and me as we biked home together one evening, just two blocks from our house. As he passed, gunning his engine, he rolled down the passenger-side window to shout, “You’re supposed to ride single-file, a**holes.” Scott thought the driver – who turns out to live just a couple blocks away from us – was just a jerk, with a reaction totally out of proportion to any delay he suffered behind us on a quiet neighborhood street. I pondered whether the driver’s reaction really was a deep personal affront that we were not following the rules of the road.

Another friend shared curiously parallel story, only she was the driver who confronted the cyclists. She thought they were rude and unfair to refuse to move from riding abreast to riding single file so she could safely pass them on a winding country road. After she did pass them, and reached her destination, she walked back out to the road and stopped the two bikers as they came by, so she could bring them to a sense of their iniquity. As I listened to her tell the story, I couldn’t help but reflect privately that if she had enough time to stop and confront them, she could have equally well have used the same time to drive slowly behind them to her destination.

I began to think about the duality of these tales. It’s a truism that there are two sides to every story, and it seems each side is hardened in the belief of being in the right by the nature of these traffic-related encounters.

I came back to thinking about the driver who honked at me. Whatever value judgment could be made about my subsequent actions, surely she was wrong to honk at me? My grown son Colin had a wonderful insight. “It’s like this, Mom,” he said. “She was in a hurry, you got in front of her, she said ‘Oh, balls,’ and she honked. To you, that was as out of line as someone making fake farting noises in church. But to her it wasn’t like being in church. It was like being a second grader at an assembly. Everyone makes fake farting noises.”

David Engwicht, the Australian social inventor who brought traffic calming to prominence and then disowned it, has a gem of new book out, Mental Speed Bumps: The smarter way to tame traffic. In it, he postulates that we can experience “an outbreak of civility” on our neighborhood streets if we just bring out the storyteller in motorists. Offer them intrigue, uncertainty and humor, and their storyteller persona will take over to try to fit a story to what they see. They will unconsciously slow down, and everyone will have a better time.

I imagine my encounter with the young motorist unfolding differently. Instead of righteousness, I respond with humor. I see myself dancing in the crosswalk, one hand circling up, breaking into song like Diana Ross: “STOP, for pe-DES-tr-ians! Before you break my head!” My heart is lighter, just visualizing this. Yes, it’s life-and-death out there in the streets. But giving in to rage is not the answer. Maybe I’ll try intrigue, next time.

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