Trapped between the old and the new

One can only ask, in horrific disbelief, what kind of person would fire a gun at a vehicle after a fleeting altercation with its driver over the former’s blinding headlights? Authorities are still looking for the driver of a white SUV who, last Dec. 6, fired three shots at another vehicle as he passed it in a narrow neighborhood street in Quezon City, wounding a nine-year-old girl seated at the back. “Road rage” is what it is called, but the term hardly explains anything.

The causes of road rage vary from society to society. Film depictions of this phenomenon associate it with the strains of modern living. Such accounts typically focus on ordinary individuals who, under the usual pressure from work and family, unexpectedly find themselves at the mercy of momentary insanity. The triggering event might be slow in coming, like running out of gas in the middle of an expressway traffic jam. Or it could be as jarring as the abrupt entry into your lane of another vehicle that was doing a dangerous counterflow.

Suddenly, you feel all the blood in your veins surge into your head, and you explode in a fit of irrationality and self-righteousness.

Counselors never tire of telling us what to do under such circumstances to suppress reactions that may bring about regrettable consequences. Breathing deeply while counting slowly is the most common advice we get to deflect anger and arrest the need to react. We are advised to shelve, if only for a few precious seconds, our obsession with rules and our expectations that other people should behave the way we do. Such exercises in self-restraint work for many people, including myself. If however you find yourself at the receiving end of road rage behavior, the worst thing you could do is react to any provocation. Regardless of who is at fault, we are told that it is always better to offer the sign of peace and a smile. But this requires that we learn not to take things personally.

This brings us to the thesis suggested by the title of this column. As a people, we Filipinos are caught in the difficult transition between tradition and modernity. Our traditional instincts, which incline us to take things personally in our everyday encounters with other people, are out of sync with the realities of modern living. How often have we felt slighted or personally offended when others behave as if they have not given due recognition to who we think we are? We forget that a discussion about work is not necessarily a comment about us or about anyone in particular. We have trouble separating the roles we play from the persons behind them.

As societies grow in size and become more dense, anonymity becomes the rule. Relations with other people become fleeting and fragmentary, rather than lifelong and all-encompassing. This is what modernity brings about.  We are expected to deal with strangers with ease rather than with suspicion or hostility. We don’t have to know who they are as persons in order to be able to relate to them in an orderly and trusting way.

But the shift from traditional to modern living is far from easy and smooth. The old virtues of courtesy, kindness, and nobility typically go out of fashion long before the new rules of civilized modern living have taken root in the culture. One such rule we are just beginning to apply in our daily lives is queuing. It is the foundation of much of the order we see in modern society.

We have learned to line up, wait for our turn, and not demand undue exemption from the first-come-first-served rule. It is in the variations of this rule that we falter. Where two queues have formed and are supposed to merge into one at the end, the rule demands that people from the two lines must weave into the single file one at a time, allowing the other line to advance at the same pace. This rule remains unrecognized and unenforced in our midst to this day.

It is common to see vehicles tailgating one another so as to prevent vehicles coming from another lane from merging into a common lane, as if their lives depended on their ability to deny space to an adversary. Such behavior is unthinkable in traditional society where people who know one another are expected to defer to the other’s needs.

But how do we make this kind of courtesy second nature to people under conditions of anonymity? How do we reinforce a social order based on custom with a state-imposed peace? Indeed, it all begins with the rigorous learning of the new rules until the new behavior becomes almost instinctive.

Change, however, tends to come unevenly. Overnight, societies find themselves swamped by technology that is often too fast or too powerful for their existing instincts. As the geographer Jared Diamond reminds us, “The world of yesterday shaped our genes, culture, and behavior for most of the history of behaviorally modern Homo  sapiens.” There is indeed, as he shows in his latest book “The World Until Yesterday,” much to learn from past cultures. But that murderous man in the white SUV could be a Neanderthal who has simply failed to develop the requisite sensibility to handle the immense power of a gun and a fast car. His primitive unyielding sense of territoriality is at odds with the culture of open spaces and tolerance that is at the heart of modern society.

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