By MATTHEW PATE
From my third floor office I have a good vantage from which to view the world below. In particular, I have a clear line of sight to a nearby intersection. While nominally a crossroads of two city streets (one running north and south; the other east and west), it is also a reflection of community values.
I have spent a lot of hours in a patrol car watching traffic. Across that time, I began to notice that a person’s driving habits tend to mirror other aspects of the individual’s personality and ethics. From my lofty office perch, that belief is regularly reinforced.
On the street running north and south there is a stop sign for each direction of travel. Drivers traveling north or south must yield to the east-west traffic — at least that’s the theory. On any given day, I estimate that nine out of 10 drivers fail to come to a complete stop at either stop sign. This proclivity cuts across all demographics, all manner of vehicle and all times of day or night.
I have also noticed a number of consistent repeat offenders.
Just north of the intersection is a low-income apartment building. As much as it serves to house members of the local underclass, it also serves as a collection point for young males who drive ludicrously jacked-up old sedans with enormous chrome wheels. Not one time in a hundred do any of these young men actually stop at the stop signs. They also tend to blast their booming stereos far in excess of the local noise ordinance.
Paradoxically, I also routinely see a police officer who lives nearby run the stop sign on her way to work. She does so almost every day — in a city-owned vehicle, no less.
What both parties share, beyond breaking the law, as well as endangering themselves and others, is to broadcast a message of deep egocentrism. By failing to make a complete stop, they are telling the rest of the world that the rules of society do not apply to them. By virtue of whatever status or position they hold, they have no obligation to abide the laws that bind the rest of us.
Much of this callous me-first outlook owes to a growing culture of immediate gratification. On one hand, the Internet has changed a generation so that they expect instantaneous information on whatever topic concerns them. On the other, the banking industry has encouraged a culture of indebtedness such that there is no “saving up” for something. You want it? You got it.
In short, the Weberian ideal of delayed gratification has been wholly supplanted by a sense of gross entitlement. Whatever one’s place in society, it provides justification for the temporal shortcut: rich, poor, minority, majority, male, female … the yoke of responsible adulthood is sloughed off in deference to the purulent appeal of perpetual petulant childhood.
What many of these people fail to recognize is that their self-centered behavior only serves to reinforce negative stereotypes that insure their exclusion from meaningful advancement. It’s a faulty logic, but it is often sufficient: look like a thug — be observed acting like a thug — must be a thug.
A former professor of mine, David Bayley, once told a story about visiting Japan. He was walking alone on an empty street. It was night. It began to rain. He approached an intersection. The signal flashed for him not to cross. Dutifully, he stood in the dark rain waiting for the signal to give permission.
In Japan this makes sense. They are a society much more concerned with conformity, mutual obligation and propriety. Rules are rules, even if you could get away with breaking them, you don’t.
That’s anathema to increasingly prevalent situational ethics of American culture. We have no duty, save to satisfy our own immediate desires. Maybe we don’t need a complete submersion of self as is venerated in Japan, but clearly we need a little more than we have.
Matthew Pate is a former law enforcement executive who holds a doctorate in criminal justice. He writes from Pine Bluff, Ark. Contact him at email@example.com.