Within the last century, the U.S. upheld standards of conduct. Children were expected to behave in public. Adults followed certain rituals of civility out of a desire to be considered proper. Politeness was a sign of propriety. And, most people aspired to these things.
When I was a small child, my grandmother spoke to me about the concepts of consideration and common courtesy. Those ideas were the norm in her day, she told me.
Consideration means “kind and considerate regard for others” — or thoughtfulness. But, somewhere along the way, the word “consideration” was lost to our language and culture. Nowadays, it’s rarely heard in familiar discourse.
Some ideas are better left in the past because they fly in the face of justice and humanity. But, other, sound, ideas are misplaced in the pace of progress — that struggle for a tomorrow somewhat different from today.
For one brief moment in American history, there was a thing called “decency,” a standard for living in harmony with fellow humans by considering the rights and feelings of others.
During the age of decency, it was unnecessary to foam pad the world for children. Kids roamed freely within a short distance of their homes. They could ride their bikes to the park or local hangout without fear of being mowed down or molested. Societal standards protected them with an invisible shield of propriety.
It was a world where adults looked out for children and for one another. If children were trying to cross the street, cars stopped to allow them to get safely to the other side. Sometimes, adults even stopped traffic and escorted children across the road. The children’s safety came, not from placing them in an impenetrable shell, but from civility and consideration for others.
Sometime during the discord of the 1960s, America began a descent into unmitigated self-interest. Personal gain trumped societal norms. In such an environment, valuing consideration — caring about the rights and feelings of others — fell out of fashion.
This downswing continued for several decades until the idea of caring about the welfare of others became an antiquated notion. The idea was squelched by an onslaught of self-serving principles – and the popularity of living for oneself at the expense of others.
The beginning of the cell phone era, in the mid-’90s, furthered the insularity of people’s lives by allowing individuals to exist in a solitary realm of instantaneous communication. Their social and business lives became portable. Contact with others became remote. Face-to-face connections were reduced, and the resulting detachment laid the groundwork for the move towards blatant aggression which followed.
The birth of the Internet, which created the ability to live one’s life electronically, made people even more removed from one another. Humans became nothing more than words on a computer screen. Through distance, impersonality, and anonymity their attacks on one another commenced.
Whether online or over a cell phone, it became easier to exert cruelty upon others. Consequently, rudeness and incivility became the rule.
Prior to that time, most people would never have used crude language or ripped another person to shreds with indefensible ad hominem arguments in a public forum. Yet, with the safety of numbers, and under the cloak of unidentifiableness, such behaviors flourished.
Concomitantly, I remember hearing about an incident of something called “road rage.” The first time I heard this term, I thought it was a joke. I stopped what I was doing to listen to a news report about this new phenomenon.
Apparently, two drivers had gotten out of their cars in traffic and began assaulting one another. It had to be an anomaly, I thought. No one, other than a lunatic, would behave like that, particularly in public.
Before I knew it, these reports grew in frequency. Not only were drivers becoming more aggressive, but they had abandoned common courtesy on the roads. Driving became a free-for-all with every man and woman for him or herself.
With this problem escalating, we entered the 2000s, and more bicycles appeared on American roads. Drivers, who had gotten into the habit of using aggression to operate their motor vehicles, were now faced with an impediment to their unabated unruliness on the road.
Unlike other cars, which were equals, smaller, slower vehicles were traveling along roads formerly used by cars alone. The smaller vehicles, bicycles, were regarded as an inconvenience. Their small size, and the presence of an unprotected rider, forced drivers to use caution. But, many self-centered drivers resisted. They wanted to promote the pursuit of self-interest over cooperation as the goal of road travel.
Prioritizing self-interest is what initiated the more serious problems. To share the road with slower, less powerful vehicles, drivers had no choice but to show consideration for others. They had to exhibit patience. They had to respect others’ rights. They had to engage in common courtesy.
In short, amid a sea of combativeness, arose a new situation which demanded civility – a throwback to the past.
The most hostile drivers identify their hostility towards cyclists as survival of the fittest. Their massive, motor-driven vehicles — machines capable of producing death — they think, entitle them to power over the lives of those more vulnerable than themselves.
Such conduct, however, does not represent survival of the fittest, but the triumph of the least decent among us over the civilized; it’s no more than conquest through violence and brutality, the antithesis of victory by virtue of human reason.
Hostility towards cyclists is not just another case of road rage, or even wanting cars to dominate the roads, it’s about America, and what it means to be an American.
Americans have become an uncaring and aggressive lot. And, the ensuing enmity is not confined to our roads, but instead can be found throughout American society. It has become part of the fabric of our nation.
Sharing the road, like sharing the world we live in, requires a return to civility and a newfound appreciation for consideration of others.