I worked in traffic for over twenty-seven years for the Georgia Department of Transportation. There were many times in my career where I had a lot of be proud of, with the bridges and roads that I helped build. There were times I was nearly hurt, seriously, because of traffic, and usually it was because someone behind the wheel of a car or truck wasn’t paying attention, or was speeding, or was drunk.
2018 was my last full year with the department, and 2017 was the last year I spent most of my time in harm’s way, and on I-75 at that. Night work on I-75 was enough to convince me that getting out while the getting was good might just save my life.
Traffic is different these days. People are more determined not to yield the right of way, not to surrender what they consider “their” lane, and they’re more distracted. People have gotten more aggressive, and they’ve gotten a lot more rude. They’ve become dangerously infected with the idea things on the road have to be the way they think they should be, at all costs, and that cost is paid by people like me, and the men and women under my management. In good conscious, I could not tell new people it was worth the risk, because I stopped believing it was. The traveling public became too dangerous to work with anymore.
Social media has created the idea that all opinions have real worth, and that worth has to be defended. People have become aggressive about what they believe, and it’s gotten dangerous in many ways. Drivers believe what they read online, and they believe it’s important enough to be engaged online while driving on the Interstate at speeds that can kill in an instant. That’s reality. What someone says that you either agree with or disagree with isn’t worth your life.
It sure as hell isn’t worth mine.
In the last few years, I’ve witnessed more people blocking traffic by positioning themselves to the left, and behind a slower vehicle on four lane roads. They’ll let other people get clogged up in traffic, back up a dozen cars, and they’ll maneuver so no one can get past them. This is new to me. I’ve never seen it until a few years ago, and to pull something like that on the Interstate is insane. But it speaks to the idea that someone wants to be in control of other people, other people must fall in line with that drive thinks is funny, or give that person power or purpose, I have no idea. I do know it is exceedingly dangerous.
Sometimes, on social media, I wonder if some people actually have a point, or an idea, or if they’re just getting in the way of other people because it’s their idea of fun. I asked for a recommendation on FB and got a half a dozen people who tossed out stuff that had nothing to do with what I asked. It wasn’t mean, or malicious, but it was a knee jerk reaction to get in the way because they could.
I think social media asks that we respond. We can be creative, or obstructionist, or we can even be angry. But we are trained to respond, not think, or consider, or even simply read and move on.
Those emoji buttons aren’t there to express thoughts but to give us some way to respond, and feel like we have made some sort of contribution, like screaming at a character in a television show.
When Covid-19 began to creep into the American consciousness, I assumed this would play out like it did in 1919. People would do the right things for the right reasons, and eventually, we would come out on the other side, more united, and stronger. But the dialog was driven by politics, and there were far too many people who say the plague, and the response to it, as political. The deaths and suffering of those who were infected, their families, and those who might succumb to the disease were not relevant. Any action, no matter how small or how large, was met with screaming and hostility, because it wasn’t about life and death, it was about politics, personal or national. It was about opinion and what was repeated in the echo chamber of social media posts. People became even more dangerous to other people than they had been in traffic, and for the very same reasons.
Americans have become a splintered collection of self-centered, selfish, uneducated, ignorant, self-righteous and highly opinionated self contained media centers that puke out whatever each of them feels best about, once they hear that two hundred and whatever many characters that can be tossed out in less than twenty seconds of typing.
The elderly and the children be damned. Social media is the new family now, and it is driven by nothing more complicated than a chicken pecking at a button that delivers a snack.
Over the last three years or so, I’ve watched people I thought I knew, and thought I respected, become seething bodies of hatred and mistrust, believing conspiracy theories that are downright laughable. These people will attack in mass, and viciously, anyone who dares ask them to cite a source, or to produce an honest source for what they preach.
The reaction to the plague, how people drive, and how they treat other people has become a nearly religious event. The right to a lane, the right to an opinion, and the right to treat people poorly is given to them by the Gods of social media, the support of like minded responders, and the never ending belief that if it can be repeated often enough, it must be true.
Can we honestly be surprised the Nazis are back? This is their playbook. People are recruiting themselves for the most assertive groups out there and what they actually stand for is totally and utterly irrelevant because it’s the response mechanism, not the philosophy, that counts these days.
And it’s getting people killed.