The other day I was sitting in the car at a set of slow traffic lights in Sydney, attempting a right hand turn onto a busy road. The cars in front were waiting for pedestrians to saunter across and it looked like I was going to have to wait for another sequence of traffic lights to get a go. This, however, wasn’t good enough for the car behind me, a Jaguar, which roared out of the line of traffic, overtook me on the wrong side of the road, screamed around the corner against the red light and disappeared in a puff of self-important smoke.
I have seen a lot of bad behaviour in Sydney, but this took the cake for being the most impatient and dangerous. What sense of desperation or entitlement or entitled desperation convinced this driver they were above the laws of the land? My daughter has her L-plates and I’ve been taking her out on the roads, appalled by the impatience and rudeness of drivers cutting in and beeping their horns and generally doing their best to scare the living wits out of a novice. Driving in Sydney is like being stranded on an island with Piggy, Jack and Ralph. The normal niceties of civilisation descend into a Lord of the Flies chaos.
Has society lost its sense of decorum? Is what we see on the roads in a big city the same as the bile and vituperation we see on social media, where everyone from the President down gets to say whatever they like, however offensive and potentially stupid it might be?
Consider this Tweet from Ann Coulter after the recent floods in Texas: “I don’t believe Hurricane Harvey is God’s punishment for Houston electing a lesbian mayor. But that is more credible than ‘climate change’”. What? It takes so much skill to pack that amount of emotive nonsense into 140 characters.
Closer to home, Stan Grant happens to discuss whether historical monuments in Australia could have new less-colonial wording on their plinths and Alan Jones slams in, threatening, “If Stan Grant keeps going the way he is in relation to AUS history and monuments he’ll go the same way as Yassmin Abdel-Magied”, referring to the Sudanese-Australian born presenter and speaker who made a political Anzac Day Facebook comment of seven words and was virtually hounded out of the country.
It was Evelyn Beatrice Hall in his book The Friends of Voltaire who coined the phrase “I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it”. What we have now is “I will defend to the death my right to say anything and you can just shut up”.
With all this Facebook and Twitter sniping, isn’t it a miracle that people can come and sit in concert halls of 2500 and manage to remain quiet? Very few people stand up and shout out their opinions of the performance whilst the music is happening. They might go away and share their views online after the event, or even do it quietly whilst the music plays, but rarely does anyone engage in the actual performance. Unlike comedy shows, thank heavens, there are very few classical music hecklers. It’s one thing to sit at home in a grumpy mood and fire off nasty Tweets, another thing to actually open your mouth in front of other human beings and say the same things. It is the societal fear of stepping out of the pack that tempers our response.
On the opposite side, bad behaviour on roads occurs because in our vehicles we are anonymous. Imagine if Mr “I’m Too Important For Traffic Lights” Jaguar Man had his home address and mobile number in big easy-to-read letters on the boot of his overpriced car. I would be there waiting for him when he got home, ready to ask why he thought it was so important to run the red light on the wrong side of the road. (Until he told me his wife had been giving birth, when I would feel a complete heel!)