Tailgaters, tailgating: part one (description)
practised understandings of freedom
I’m trying to write a book about love. But it’s not a book about romantic love, Hollywood love, heterogenital love, romantic love. I’m interested in the kind of love that is open to the world and expects nothing in return, because I’m convinced that it’s possible, although it’s a hard art to practise; and I’m also of the view that none of the radical transformations we might rightly propose as urgent – be they ecological, political, social, cultural – will come to much without giving attention to love.
At the same time, I can’t get to love without first thinking through hate, disaffection, alienation: the set of bad conditions and unacceptable states, relations and feelings that plague us now.
One of the things that mediates between love and hate is freedom. As I mentioned in the last post, I was impressed by Maggie Nelson’s deft handling of freedom there, her respossession of this overdetermined term – especially in the US – in favour of a conception that gives central place to care and constraint.
There’s no greater theatre of everyday life where these tensions and contradictions of freedom play themselves out than in traffic.
For this reason, the tailgater seems to me to be the central figure of our time: a person who, unlike 95% of people, insists on behaving like a total arsehole.
I had a lot of thoughts on this, so I’ve split the post. This first ?half? tries to be more descriptive, the second I’m intending as more analytic. After that, I’ll see how much more of it I have in me.
On a recent Sunday evening I had a telling encounter with a stranger. A silver Landcruiser Prado in my rearview, really up my backside. It was close to 5pm, and I was moving steadily, right at the speed limit, with traffic spread evenly across in each lane, along a three-lane-a-side road with a 60 kilometre limit.
In the moment, I did what I learned to do in the three years I was commuting on that very road. I kept driving at exactly my speed, without altering course or giving any indication of having noticed his behaviour. Then, a long minute or so later, the moment it became possible, I indicated and smoothly pulled into the lane to the left, and let him past. He pushed right to the bumper of his new obstacle, the next driver in front of them. I had passed the buck, but at least I had restored a greater degree of safety to myself and my four passengers.
I watched him continue to aggress the driver in front of me, even as we approached a red light. When the lights turned green, they lanesharked over to the leftmost lane – and repeated their pattern, again, without gaining any advantage. By way of context, the driving conditions on that road – for the next several kilometres – typically involve traffic evenly spread across the three different lanes moving in the one direction. So, leaving aide that there’s already no lawful possibility of going any faster (because everybody's already driving at the speed limit), it was simply not possible to drive that road and those conditions faster in any case. This means that, unlike the moment of breaking through on a freeway after a sticky snarl, or a tailgater who ‘pushes’ toward a driver in the rightmost freeway lane to get them to notice and yield, there was no logical-situational possibility of gaining any advantage by tailgating that succession of drivers on that road. On a figurative freeway, anyone is free to test the limits of freedom and individuality by risking their safety and license as much as they see fit; but on that particular road on that day for that guy, there was not even any such freedom. There was an absolute futility to that particular tailgater’s tailgating – on that road, that moment. Yet he persisted, and in fact repeated the pattern with every successive person he encountered as he aggressed.
The tailgater stubbornly inflicts their chosen path on every stranger they encounter; that’s how they roll. They are a modus operandi who continually finds and aggresses their vehicle upon a succession of obstacles they create by their course of action, by their chosen path. Whether or not they approach this with any degree of regard, concern, or compassion, we can observe in their behaviour that their wish to aggress overcomes any inhibition – which most of us do feel – about threatening strangers’ safety and wellbeing to no pragmatic advantage. For me, this is a sketch of a paradigm of contemporary social relations: what happens when we’re in the presence of arseholes who refuse to play nice and get along with everyone, given the constraints we commonly face?
Like all the other drivers but this one I was driving my surroundings, responding to all the drivers and their speed, movements, and indications in realtime. There’s a systemic necessity for doing only this that constrains all of us alike, for if any of us were to try to go faster or slower we wouldn't maintain a safe distance between our vehicles and those surrounding us. If we are to be safe then we must be constrained, then we can move rapidly toward our destination. The basal logic of driving traffic is acceptance/rejection of constraint: constraint is the price of freedom of the freeway.
This constraint attends of two key experiences of our urban and suburban lives together, now. Firstly, traffic is one everyday way in which we encounter and dwell with one another as strangers, moving from place to place across the city, between suburbs and towns. Secondly, as just mentioned, traffic is a condensed description of the actual freedom we have in such spaces, but more particularly it’s a freedom of movement constrained and conditioned both by systemic factors and the subjective, variable behaviour of the other people who happen to be co-operating that system around us at that moment. In any sych system, all behaviour induces and produces behaviour. Observing the dynamic of the systemic level, this means it freedom is the acceptance of constraint that, once enacted, has a recursive logic conditioned both by the system and by the subjects using it. Thinking about freedom in the context of systems means thinking about recursion, and tailgating as being about its refusal. That which messes with its order shows its order to be an order that can be messed with.
Order is a relatively durable fact of the emergent system that traffic is; and in thick fast traffic, it all still works somehow, in spite of how complex and dangerous it actually is. Traffic kills 1.35 million or so people around the world each year, yet we think almost nothing of it, and we persist in engaging with it although we may know this, and we mostly don’t get upset about the obligatory risk of inhabiting and living with it – in stark contrast to the way Islamist terrorism was framed and lived with in the Anglophone 2000s, or the extremely variable, volatile, contradictory ways risk has been apprehended since the onset of the pandemic.
Driving in traffic is an everyday situation that billions of people around the world routinely handle, mostly without giving it much thought, once we’ve learned how. The fact that it works, by and large, and mostly we get where we’re going, and that usually no one panics or causes an accident, is a prosaic miracle we live in the midst of, that routine interaction can blind us to. Routinisation speaks to the embedding, blinkering, enabling power of habituation, ‘second natures’ that not only enable us to cope in skilled ways, but that also blind us to how amazing their routine occurrence really is. Any of our ancestors until the 1950s would be amazed and incredulous about this situation and our ability to handle something so nerve-wracking and improbably dangerous in a blasé way, while giving most of our fully conscious attention to an in-car conversation or music.
Driving in thick fast flowing traffic also presents us with a banal paradigm of individual freedom constrained by a system logic which belies any conception of any individual’s freedom as an ‘individual attribute’ – an agency we simply and fully possess on our own or freely chose on our own, a behaviour we can spontaneously ‘just do’ – because it is inherently social. It’s a freedom that only works when it’s enacted well enough by all participants whose share of the space create-and-constrain it; we have to behave socially, in order to be able to keep moving safely through the space we-they temporarily co-occupy. Again, empirical experience teaches us that 95% of drivers, 95% of the time, practise this social understanding of freedom well enough – for 99% of us, without having analysed and conceptualised that we’re doing so. Again, what’s amazing is both how amazing it is, as well as how little reflection we typically give it.
Moreover, that it works socially, sociably most the time is also what the tailgater shows had been ordinarily happening until they came along: precisely by dint (or dent) of their refusal to heed, regard, play along, and make nice. In other words, the refusal of the system’s terms by the rogue agent is precisely what shows that the system works, how the system works, the actions which therefore can fuck with it – and that the tailgater knows and sees fit to play with all of this via their aggression towards other people. It’s the latter fact in this complex context I’ve described that makes it antisocial behaviour, just as it is as antisocial behaviour that it gains powerful agency.
But to get to the threshold, to become capable of menacing everyone with a car and a road and its implications, there’s a level of disinhibition in the tailgater that escapes most of us. Most drivers wouldn’t dream of driving in such a recklessly dangerous, selfish and aggressive way. And yet: some arseholes do it all the time. Again, that’s how they roll. This also opens onto what can make tailgating a juicy case study for thinking about the persistence of powerful cultural fantasies of individual liberty – and how people act them out when they behave like arseholes – in the face of how freedom is actually practised well enough by millions of decent enough people in the same societies.
We also drive in relation to one another, in ways that are deeply and meaningfully social, yet subtle. We respond to one another without even having to be told, without ever having been expressly taught; wherever this happens, it is what Max Weber identified as social action, which he describes by way of the following distinction. If two cyclists or pedestrians fail to notice and just crash into one another, this is simply an accident. In contrast, if two cyclists see and swerve to avoid one another, social action has happened, and a sociologist is left with the work of saying how that is meaningful, in a way that a mere accident, or a rock falling off a cliff into the sea, are not. If one considers a constrained space, like a narrow, crowded pedestrian bridge, we can see how compression induces social action out of individuals by crowding and canalising them, which speaks to how we all negotiate ‘ways’ by reading a – hugely complex – live set of environmental clues and cues, as well as explicit body language and eye contact, in order to make our way safely through any crowded space.
In part, driving traffic safely enough works because nearly everybody understands how it’s appropriate to drive such traffic: this is tacit and supple and known without having to be declared repeatedly. Unlike civil aviation, our culture doesn’t feel the need to perform safety demonstrations before each car trip. Nor are occupants typically obliged to remind drivers of what we ought to be doing every few minutes: in fact, this is a backseat driver, whose comments are always unwelcome. The old hoon’s bumper sticker declares it: ‘get in, sit down, shut up and hold on’. Mostly this works; occasionally we die. But usually not.
But as for declaration, there's also the visible interjection of traffic laws, heralded by the ubiquitous rhythmic existence of traffic signs which instruct everybody alike. This is a great contemporary example of law’s generality and publicity (where in other ‘public’ places it no longer exists, if it ever did). Over and over, signs broadcast the general rule, which is also the generality that is ‘Rule’, if you like. ‘Law’ as well as a set of rules; responding to internalised authority, as well as just following clear instructions. If it says 60, then it's sixty for the duration of that space, and for everybody, not: do as you please. That’s the law.
The threat of enforcement by the police, as agents of the law, also turns the fear of authority into a realistic possibility that inhibits us from doing as we please. As humans living together now we also follow a ‘third’ who exists as the literal and figurative authority guaranteeing the enforceable existence of the order: sometimes the cops are waiting, at certain points there are cameras, someone is watching, and might catch you.
To sum up a little of what I’ve raised so far: the cultural ordinariness of the tailgater in spite of this is what makes their persistent existence so vexing, as well as such a conspicuous irritant and signature danger of the everyday driving culture here, now. By and large, every set of drivers ‘in’ the same traffic are strangers to one another. Yet in each moment we-they comprise a constrained society of individuals who practise freedom by managing constraint together in order to stay on their way to our-their separate and specific destinations. Yet this particular style of stranger, alone among the dozens surrounding me, right up my backside, gating my tail, was wilfully driving against all the system’s cultural, social and legal logics, every one of its sanctions, and everything internalised that usually inhibits us from behaving in this way. He remained right up my backside, gating my tail for at least a minute. There was no way for him to get through on the left or the right, and there was of way for me to create space by going faster, because of the driver right in front of me. I had to stay calmly trapped in a heightened state of danger, because of a stranger’s choice to inflict their wish to aggress upon me. Persistently.
The tailgater presents themselves to their fellow driver with a strange and upsetting yet culturally typical situation whose appearance is pure bloody-minded aggression: persisting with its chosen path, in spite of its total futility. He wants to aggress, yet he cannot, and so I am his obstacle. I have no way of responding to his stubborn pursuit of this course of action. I want to get out of the way of the danger his aggressive presence inflicts on my family for every second he is right up me; but I cannot, so I am aggressed, and remain at the mercy of the reduced margin of error he chooses to inflict on both of us, which intensifies the potential significance of a sneeze or a spider behind the rearview mirror into the appreciably increased risk of a major accident or fatality. This situation is paradoxical and doubly binding, in a way that goes to the heart of what it means to have to live together, somehow, now: we’re strangers, yet we know we’re those who are co-occupying space, yet neither wishes the other were there, yet each knows and acts as they do because the other is there.
So there we were together, although everything about both of us hates one another and wishes not to be there together. Society proves its existence, even and especially in those moments of the most acute disaffection, where we wish we were what Thatcher asserted we are: individuals and families alone.
How can we think about this, as an instance of a practised understanding of freedom in the context of our living together, somehow? This is what I have a go at in the next post.