When a driver struggles and attempts to parallel park five times on a busy Belgrade street, he may also wave to the accumulated traffic. As if to say, "Thanks for being patient and not killing me."
How we drive, then, is a reflection of how we live in the society composed of the impolite, the rude, the aggressive, the dangerous, and the frightening. Most of the time, these five elements bring the rest of us down to their level.
I discovered this recently when I was attempting to explain to my newly motorized fiancée exactly why she should wave an excuse to the car behind her when she stalled at the traffic light on Cvijceva. As a point of principle, she need not have acknowledged anything. She could have restarted the car and proceeded as planned, which in fact she did.
And I realized that she was right.
I really wanted her to wave as a way to ward off trouble. My experience with traffic in Belgrade has brought me to the conclusion that people are complete lunatics when they get behind the wheel. I expect them to draw their weapons and raise their fists at the slightest provocation. If it had been ME, I certainly would have waved - not because I thought I was in the wrong but because I did not want to buy myself any trouble. That is precisely how I explained it - demonstrating that I am completely ready to compromise my values and principles in order to avoid problems and, eventually, violence.
I still think the urge to avoid violence is a good and useful instinct. But I am questioning now how what we do perpetuates our systemic bowing to it. "Appeasement," by the way, turned out to be a very stupid strategy for Neville Chamberlain as he watched Hitler march into Poland in 1939.
On the other hand, how can we - individual citizens - expect to change society by refusing to give into its warped set of values? How does refusing to give your doctor a bottle of whiskey protect you from getting bad treatment or (more likely) NO treatment at all? How does not accepting incompetence from a shop clerk make your shopping experience any better? How does complaining at ill-treatment get you anything more than additional ill-treatment?
And why should I apologize to a speeding driver just because I might be going slower than he?
The more we appease the rude, the impolite, the aggressive, the dangerous, and the frightening, the more of their "qualities" we can expect to endure. Now that I have said this out loud, I am faced with the choice of how I will implement this discovery in my daily life. I will probably continue to proffer perfunctory apologies, even when they are underserved, out of habit.
If you cut me off in traffic, your wave will not get you any extra points. If you are driving slowly, however, I might not now honk my horn so quickly. Living in a society that promotes habitual bad behavior based mostly on fear is not my idea of the good life.
But habits and routines and ritual compromises, like traffic lights, inevitably change.
Text first published in Serbian translation in Politika, February 8, 2013