Instead of freaking out, if we redirect our frustration over the actions of fellow human beings toward reflection and understanding, it may help us better empathize with people and not dismiss them as idiots or jerks. So, here’s me redirecting some frustration I have by writing a blog post instead of doing something I wouldn’t be proud of.
I’m a bike commuter. I love it. But nearly everyday, I see my fellow cyclists do things that hurt their interests and mine too. I want to say they are being stupid (oops, I said it) but what I mean is that they are being human. Keep in mind that I love these people. They reduce congestion and pollution while they stay in shape, connect with the out-of-doors, save money and get to work—all at the same time. I wish everyone would. (In Copenhagen, when the traffic light changes, thirty bikes go past first; then the cars. What’s not to like?) Like me, the cyclists I talk with are cycling advocates, generally speaking, and would like to see more bikes and fewer cars. But riding is a risky in Baltimore. The city is only beginning to make room for us, and there is some real animosity between drivers and cyclists. There are more drivers than cyclists, and they vote. So, you’d think that all cyclists would want to act as if they were ambassadors for cycling in order to help build positive feelings about cycling and cyclists among the population overall. This might eventually lead to more bike routes, more bike lanes, more bike paths and less hostility. But because a huge factor in human behavior is expedience, cyclists do certain things that improve their short-term objectives a little, but that ultimately hurt their long-term goals a lot. They regularly run traffic lights to shave a few seconds off their commute times. Even though Maryland law says that cyclists have to obey essentially the same rules as cars, off these cyclists go—whizzing through intersections at the moment they think they’re safe, though the light is red. It irks drivers to no end to see cyclists do what they themselves cannot do. Further, despite that the city spent some of the little money it has to build a separate bike path next to Falls Rd., cyclists often choose to ride out in the road instead. I feel like a tattletale—a traitor for reporting this, but it’s true and it’s important. What does it say to city drivers and city taxpayers who see it?
Humans, right? We are complex. We do things for lots of intermingled reasons. Separate parts of our brains compete to rule our behavior. Older, reptilian areas wrestle with centers of emotion and neo-cortical thoughtfulness, reason, and foresight, and the biggest brain part doesn’t automatically win. We subvert our own thoughtfulness by deploying it to do the bidding of the reptile. We rationalize to avoid inconvenience even when that inconvenience will multiply over time as a result. A bike commuter might say to himself, “Hey, drivers treat me like shit anyway and the city obviously doesn’t care about me either. I owe these people nothing. They can bite me.” Here, a biker consults her sense of justice in order to justify, rather than act in her own interest and in ways that benefit everyone else as well.
Is the human ability to know better a curse when we can still choose to act worse?