Stormy weather – the link between road rage, hurricanes and global unrest

Tip of the week – Tuesday 4th December 2012

While the political focus remains on economic and religious turbulence, the world has seen a rise in many forms of extremism over the past decade. With environmental, technological and behavioural extremes becoming not only prevalent, but also popular, is there a role for moderation in calming the waters?

Last week, I was foolish enough to open my car window to say hello to someone I thought was an old friend. As the corresponding window descended in my roadfellow’s car, not only did it become clear that this was in fact, no one I knew, but also that, from their point of view, I had committed some sort of offence. This, it would appear, is not an uncommon occurrence on Britain’s roads.

I can only assure you that no traffic incident had taken place – no bump, chip or dent had so much as dared to flirt with the car’s ample behind. Yet by the verbal assault which followed, you would have thought Israel and Palestine had started shelling each other. Oh…wait.

Perhaps it was coincidence that this incident occurred on the same day as unrest in Israel and Gaza intensified significantly and a week after Hurricane Sandy battered New York. Perhaps my attacker had family in one of these countries, and the associated stress was therefore an understandable factor. Perhaps they were already mourning a loss.

Either way, I decided for the sake of diplomacy to apologise for being friendly, and to drive on. Only afterwards did it hit home not only how such behavioural extremes can be caused by mistaken intent, but also how quickly they can escalate into something so much bigger than whatever so called ‘incident’ may or may not have taken place. The innocuous opening of a window effectively started a miniature war.

I wonder how many ‘battles’, even wars, begin in this way? The teenager whose respectful nod is mistaken for a curse. We know what follows. The reporter who takes a snippet of conversation out of context and finds a libel case swiftly on their doorstep. The banker who starts with one risky trade as a punt, and initiates an inexorable path to the gates of jail. These escalation effects are on the up.

Then there are the questions of race, gender and religion which have quite deliberately been left out of the anecdotes above. These are firelighter issues which trigger not just debate, but instant outrage and scandal. An accusation under any of the headings above is almost as potent as a conviction. They are topics which pertain to people’s identity and integrity, which most go all out to protect.

We must, however, be careful to make sure that the extremity of our reaction to such issues does not supercede what actually happens, else we risk brandishing the innocent with marks they will find very difficult to erase. As litigiousness increases, it has become all too easy for people to take offence and demand retribution. At one end of the extreme, people are arguing about not a great deal. They feed glutinously and obsessively on bureaucracy, time and money to feel like they have ‘won’. I am reminded of the case where a US citizen sued McDonalds after burning themselves with coffee, arguing that they had not been informed that the coffee was hot. The irony here is almost poetic, as I’m quite sure a far more speedy complaint would have been issued had the coffee been cold. The individual concerned did not take action because the coffee was not advertised as hot. They took action because they saw an opportunity to feel triumphant in a world where triumph feels hard to come by. Such cases pale into insignificance when compared to the challenges we do not face as a result of thinking too much as individuals and not enough as a collective.

Here lies the rub. Over the next 10 years, our need to win, be right and feel superior will rise exponentially according to the uncertainty, unpredictability and intensity of the challenges we face. As our cultural, economic, environmental and political context becomes more extreme, so do our reactions, attitudes and beliefs. The need to win is infectious and addictive. However our global challenges require co-operation to be solved. Unless we can moderate our reactions, and look for collective solutions ahead of personal justice, we risk getting stuck in a vicious, and on-going cycle of redundant combat. As hurricanes, tsunamis, recessions and road rage become more extreme, the ability to moderate the reactive in us will become as important as it currently feels to assert it.

Comments

  1. Nick. Thoughtful piece. It triggered these thoughts. We have assumptions and create meaning from events, it creates complex dynamics internally and in our interfaces. So unpredictable. Despite my background in mental health and using CBT, I’ve explored this again recently whilst following an 8 week Mindfulness course. It left me reflecting about our capacity for compassion. It is this that allows us to forgive, see the best in ourselves and others. Being kind internally to ourselves and in our interfaces. If there is anything we can practice with a view to becoming better, it is in being more compassionate. Thanks for the thought stimulation. Dafydd.