They Cannot Tell the Difference

When driving through one of the more Hipster-ish areas of the Greater Boston Area recently, I was cut off in traffic by one of the horde of 18-21 year-old students here: I honked at her.

She snapped her head at me, mouth open and lip curled, the look on her face one of shock, moral outrage, and disgust; she then mouthed to me (in her horror): “are you fucking kidding me?”

This is not an isolated incident. For whatever reason, it seems to happen most often with girls and middle-aged men. It has happened to me hundreds of times in the past several years.

Usually when someone cuts me off violently that one has the decency to keep the public conscience intact by pretending not to notice me, to have somehow missed me. I’m often enough annoyed by this, but I grant that it may very well have been an honest (even if potentially fatal) mistake: they might be thinking about their dying mother, &c. I can live with this well enough.

But this brings me to my point, occasioned by the outraged girl mentioned above: these Millennials, more so than for my Gen-X-er cohort, but still also for the Boomers before them, far too often cannot tell the difference between personal annoyance and moral outrage; in some cases, they cannot tell the difference between their own sense of entitlement and being morally in the right. 

The girl above clearly confused the concentrate of her feelings with the clarity of a sound ethical judgment, and this is a dangerous thing, especially when it is reinforced by ritual vocal habits (e.g., “are you fucking kidding me?”) that help to summon and circulate this emotional concentrate, disabling thought and judgment: there is an established slot within a narrative ready-to-hand that can banish any need for responsibility or reflection.

4 thoughts on “They Cannot Tell the Difference

  1. I think honking has also become so over-used that some people have forgotten what it’s actually for — they think it’s a sign of anger or “screw you” when it’s supposed to be “Hey, don’t do that!” Maybe the only effective means of social pressure is now the internet — somebody films someone making a terrible traffic gaffe, puts it on Youtube. As a Millennial (older & wiser of course!) I have noticed the Annoyance=Injustice thing among my peers. Like the whole concept of micro-aggressions. For serious.

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  2. I remember reading an essay some 15+ years ago, as a fresh undergrad, about an American in China during the middle of the 20th Century. The writer mentioned that he/she was in a swarm of bicycles, all of them constantly ringing their handlebar bells, not with the aim of saying “look out!” or “you’re a jerk!” but in order to constantly communicate to other bikers, “I’m here, I’m here, I’m here”, so that they could all move in concert relative to one another. There were no hard-and-fast lanes. They would swarm around a car, and come so close that the essayist was frightened — but there was never an accident. The point? I suppose it’s that honking (here: ringing) has many functions.

    The more I think about it, prompted by your comment: perhaps kids should be in Driver’s Ed. from the time they’re 11 or 12. They could be taught the rules of the road from the time they’re old enough to get distracted –seriously distracted– by other boys and girls. Youtube videos would be a great classroom teaching tool.

    The connection between this attitude and micro-aggressions is not lost on me. The problem is that we’ve lost any common commitment to common, public rituals, and in the absence of them, we are exposed to the flux of raw power. (The Confucians know better, but so does Adorno.) Power, when it imposes itself, may seem friend or foe. In the absence of common commitments, it is the very wielding of power that becomes problematic, rather than power on behalf of the common commitments by which we are a united people (in the States, a liberal polity — not a “progressive” one). Thus: micro-aggressions, and the confusing of emotional responses and moral judgments. Ignorance is here not bliss, but hell.

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  3. Well, I learned to drive at a relatively late age (33) but I was familiar with a lot of the laws due to being a bicyclist. Yes, I think there is a basic sense of common decency that goes beyond political/social/racial/sexual divisions that many people are lacking. A certain amount of “microagressions” are just general rudeness. Have you heard of or read the book the Big Sort? My review here- https://caelesti.wordpress.com/2009/05/18/the-big-sort/ It’s about how U.S. culture has become more & more divided, and the decline of those commonalities that you’re talking about.

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    • I’m glad you mentioned the book, as I’d not heard of it. I’ll be sure to get to it, so long as I don’t die sooner than expected. I’ll post something on this in the next month.

      And yes: bicycling would teach one these things…but I’m not sure that for most teens, it’s the best way for them to learn — at least, not in the city. When I was in high school, some members of the sports teams would get hammered, and then ride their bicycles home, to avoid DUI charges, and, they thought, to be safer. They’d end up falling off their bikes and riding into trees and things, though, so they ended up with lots of broken bones, anyway. I fear similar amusing foolery in the city, only here, it would be deadly. :-/

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