For a variety of reasons (the most significant of which you can learn about here) I’ve been catching a lot of public transport recently. It’s quick, it’s cheap, it’s environmentally friendly and I strongly support it as part of decent urban planning.
And it also infuriates me in ways I find hard to express. So between about 10 hours of that this week, combined with being trapped in a stairwell earlier today for half an hour (who the FUCK designs a stairwell that locks behind you and the only exit is alarmed?), I’m in exactly the sort of mood for discussing the imminent doom of human civilisation and why we bloody well deserve it.
Ok. Ok, I’m good.
There are, of course, no shortage of criticisms one could make about public transport and the people that use it. And yeah we’ll get to those, but what really gets to me about the entire system is just how beautifully it sums up society and the human condition as a whole. It’s a perfect little microcosm of a society, complete with the cavalcade of idiocy that entails.
Consider the situation; you get on to a train carriage and already you’re a part of something – up to 150 people all crammed into a confined space with nowhere to go. You might not want to be there, you might not need to be there, but regardless of what you’d like in this moment you are now stuck here and it’s going to take some pretty extreme (and likely fatal) measures to get you out at least before the next stop.
So here you are, stuck in a confined space with a bunch of strangers. If that isn’t a rough definition of a society then I don’t know what is. Every single one of those passengers is an individual with their own wants, needs, hope and dreams, up to and possibly including a compulsion to skin you and wear your like a coat, and you have absolutely no way of knowing any of this without inciting a riot.
“So… tell me about the REAL you.”
That in itself would likely be fine – you can just avoid eye contact, keep to yourself and ride the experience out, keeping your back against a wall as necessary. But it’s oh so much more complicated than that, isn’t it? And that’s because as a group, you have a shared and extremely finite resource to manage: space.
When numbers are low this is all pretty straight-forward. You can sit far away from others, stretch out and occupy a few seats at your leisure, or cluster with some friends quite easily. But during peak hour the numbers increase and suddenly that space is very much in demand. And this is where the analogy with a society gets interesting, because we really REALLY suck at this.
In an ideal world the people in the carriage would recognise space for the shared and finite resource it is, share it out as equally and efficiently as possible and maximise both the amount of room each person had to themselves, and also the number of people who can fit in the carriage and avoid having to wait for the next one.
But what actually happens when the carriage gets crowded and space becomes limited? Idiocy. Idiocy happens.
Why the hell does anyone need telling about this? I’ve empathised with paedophiles on this site, but I will never be able to comprehend why people think this is a good idea. It’s like thinking walking up the down escalator is a faster option.
People trying to enter the carriage before others get off, like salmon with low IQs. People flat out blocking the doors, burying their heads in their phones and actively ignoring the situation. People blocking the aisle so no one can make room and literally causing others to miss the train. People leaving bags on seats when others are face-to-armpit in the aisle. And my personal favourite: people sitting on an aisle seat, refusing to move over to the window and quickly discovering the definition of ‘worst of both worlds’ when I climb over them with bonus tea-bagging action.
Observed objectively this sort of thing looks flat-out psychopathic. I have personally been late to work because of arsehole who wouldn’t make room, causing me to miss my train. The effort required for them to prevent this is nearly non-existent, and the cost to me was potentially huge, and yet they flat out refused to do so – I don’t care what system of ethics you prefer, that’s a dick move. And while it certainly doesn’t justify throwing a dude from a moving train, let’s just say I definitely see the appeal of the idea.
And yet when you consider these moronic, oblivious, selfish behaviours in the context of a human society, suddenly everything makes perfect sense. Much like public transport the real world involves being stuck in one contained (and rapidly filling) place with a large number of people, nearly all of which are total strangers. The real world also has a bunch of finite common resources we need to divide between us, including space but also clear air, fresh water, food, energy, technology, wealth, employment and plenty more besides.
And how do we go about managing these resources? Do we effectively communicate with everyone else around us, check they have what they need and want and distribute those resources efficiently and fairly for the benefit of all?
Or do we do the political equivalent of standing in the train doorway and trying to ignore the problem?
And that’s just the passive annoyances – we haven’t even talked about people proactively being dickheads up in your business. Catch a train to Frankston or #96 tram up to Northcote enough times and odds are good you’ll run in a colourful individual who seems dead-set on spicing up your commute. Maybe they’ll play you some of their favourite music at full volume without headphones. Maybe they enlighten you with their political and social ideals three inches away from your face. Maybe they’ll be utterly wasted, scull a bottle of blue Gatorade and then projectile vomit it down the length of the carriage (yes this really happened). Or, if you’re really lucky, they might help you truly understand the value of life by trying to take yours away.
Such encounters are rare, but boy are they memorable – one nutter with no respect for, trapped in a confined space with a bunch of strangers is less a disaster waiting to happen and more one thoroughly underway. But here too the parallels with human society ring true; there may not be that many aggressively destructive people out there, but they are out there and if you have the misfortune to share the same space as them then it’s going to ruin your day.
You’d think the obvious thing to do in real life would be to band together, round up the aggressive arseholes and get them straightened out. But reduce things down to a single train carriage and even your most gung-ho law-and-order enthusiast tends to react the same way to such an obvious threat: head down, eyes averted and desperately hoping that the crazy person leaves you alone.
Why? Because who knows what they’re capable of, you’ve got no idea how they’ll react to you telling them to behave, and if worst does come to worst and things get physical, do you really believe the rest of the (hopefully) sane people on the carriage will come to your aid? Or will they just do what you’re doing right now and try to ignore the problem in case it very suddenly becomes their problem?
And so the arsehole effectively gets free reign of the carriage.
Oh sure there are plenty of examples of passengers rallying together and putting a stop to shitty behaviour, but for every time such cooperation was successful there will be several times when the person that stands up will find themselves alone, and a dozen times when everyone just did the usual thing, put their heads down and tried to avoid the problem.
All of which translates nicely to the real world where the biggest bastards tend to rise to the top, make thousands of people’s lives miserable, and everyone just sort of tries to ignore that. Hell, some of us even deal with it by celebrating it and trying to emulate the dickheads on the basis that it obviously worked for them and therefore must be ok.
ie. The hero-worship surrounding this child labour-endorsing, worker suicide-enabling, tantrum-throwing, power-abusing piece of shit.
Even the way we deal with shitty behaviour is comparable between public transport and the real world. Dickhead with their bag on the seat why you’re stuck standing up? How do you respond to that? Do you take the mature and assertive route, calmly requesting they vacate the seat and respectfully holding your ground if they refuse? Or do you just stand there awkwardly, seething away in a stew of outrage, frustration and self-loathing, which in extreme cases may burst out of you in the form of an incredibly disproportionate tantrum and/or act of violence?
And so it is in real life where we bitch and moan about the state of the world, wax lyrical with friends and on social media about how thing should be and the pricks that hold us all back (very much aware of the hypocrisy, thank you), and generally don’t do very much to actually change it. You’d think the obvious, intelligent thing to do when faced with limited shared resources and complex international problems would be to, y’know, talk to the people we disagree with and sort shit out for the benefit of everyone. But as we demonstrated numerous times in 2016, apparently we’d rather desperately try to ignore anyone who disagrees with us, call them names with people who already agree with us, and generally sit around and watch things get significantly worse.
Not a fan of Trump’s solution here, but then again I’m yet to hear any better alternatives for dealing with Syria. Feel free to share one in the comments.
But you know what? Despite all the shitty, idiotic, short-sighted, moronic, oblivious, sheep-like behaviour I am forced to observe and tolerate every single god damn day on public transport, and indeed in human society in general, the overall news here is good. Because despite all of that, when you get right down to it public transport is actually a thoroughly fine experience for 95% of the time and that is a pretty excellent success rate when you consider how much worse it could be.
Seriously, we may focus on the shitty moments but in practice they really are quite manageable for the most part and the seriously intolerable issues are really quite rare. Of course just because the crap is rare or manageable doesn’t mean we should have to put up with it, but in the grand perspective of the experience, public transport works just fine and so does life for the most part.
Human beings are apes with anxiety disorders that know just enough about the universe to really feel insecure about our place in it – as such we are just unbelievably unequipped for running something as horrifically complex as a society, let alone a civilisation. And yet against all odds we actually do a pretty damn good job at it. Sure there’s plenty of awfulness out there, but considering how bad things really should be with our species at the helm, I feel inclined to give us the benefit of the doubt.
Unless you’re the sort of motherfucker who designs stairwells that lock you in and make you set off the alarm for the entire building to escape. Seriously, fuck that guy.