15 January, 2014
"Okay, now this is a narrow road. The camber is steep, and there are always cars parked on both sides."
My driving instructor was an affable chap. He had been a taxi driver before deciding there was more money in teaching people how to drive. As someone who has spent his fair share of time in taxis, I can understand the desire felt by a taxi driver to improve the general competence of all road users.
So here we were, rolling into a twisty street in a small, close-knit housing estate outside Clydebank. He wasn't wrong. Cars on both sides, none even remotely on the pavement (the pavements were also narrow), and to get down the road we literally had to straddle the central white lines, still only leaving inches spare on either side of us.
I slowed down almost to a stop. I was a confident pupil—had been since lesson one, though it still took me a second attempt to pass—but I was hesitant here. I was suddenly responsible for other people's property in a way that I hadn't been aware of before. Every wing mirror looked like it had a bullseye painted on it.
My instructor noticed my hesitation, turned to me and said "It's pretty simple, really: if you look at the cars, you'll hit the cars; if you look at the gap, you'll hit the gap."
If you know me personally for any length of time, you'll hear me quote this self-corrective mantra at regular intervals, and for good reason. Even at seventeen years old, it blew my mind. There are many rich ideas caught up in those twenty little words. Mindfulness, focus determining reality, choosing direction and so on.
What really unlocked it for me, though, was the idea that you could "aim" for the absence of something; that often when we focus on avoiding a particular thing, we end up focussing on the thing we're trying to avoid, and hence steering ourselves directly into its path. This little koan may appear to advise disengagement, but it's far more subtle. In reality, it's about choosing what takes your focus, being mindful of the decisions you make. It's about understanding that to avoid something, you want to move "towards the alternative" instead on "away from the something".
This idea of choice and intent is something I'm thinking a lot about at the moment. I see many people defining themselves by what they're not, or standing against a thing, then uniting to enforce one of those rejections. This is not new, of course, but it's increasingly easy thanks to the wonders of instant internet communication.
The Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory has been in circulation for around a decade now, and it's more true today than ever before. The new multiplier here is not the anonymity (since angry mobs have always had that to some extent), but more the fact that the internet makes it easy to instantly assemble a mob on a global scale, sometimes by accident. The fun tale of Justine Sacco is a case in point: here's a regular person who made an incredibly insensitive and badly-judged "joke" on twitter, then got on a twelve hour flight and debarked to public derision, rape and death threats, and a dismissal from her employer.
The mob took their angry reaction to a perceived intolerance… and steered directly into committing the crime they were avenging.
They looked at nothing but the cars, and ploughed straight into them.
Which brings me to the second most important self-correction mantra I've picked up: If you're struggling to explain to a friend why you're not one of the bad guys in a given confrontation you've had, maybe that's because you're one of the bad guys.
Was Justine wrong and insensitive? Should the mob be embarrassed by its overreaction? The answer to both of those questions can be "yes" without violating some law of conservation.
I don't want to sound like I'm taking some sort of high ground here. I've joined the mob more than once, I've started it on occasion, and sometimes the mob has been entirely populated by me.
The thing is, it's always tempting to jump into the mob, to sweep off en masse and right some wrong. It feels positive, like true justice, but let's bear in mind that the mob is often focussing squarely on the wrong that has been done, not on the right that should have been done, nor on some way to fix it.
Because of that, the mob is eventually going to commit worse crimes than the target. This is true whether you're talking about literal mobs, twitter pile-ons, marketplace competition, or just defending a friend by heckling their enemy.
The solution isn't to roll over when you see a wrong. This isn't about giving in, and it's not about rejecting defence. It's about choosing responses, and not defining ourselves simply in terms of what we are not.
After all, there's a lot of cars along this road, and nobody comes out without a repair bill if you miss the gap.