: 29.04.2010




  Aggressive righteousness
  I cycle to the station in Delft. Every morning at 6:45 exactly, I emerge from my house, open the bicycle shed, take out my wife’s bicycle, then take out my own. Depending on whether my wife is working that day, I move hers to the front garden or put it back in the bicycle shed. After that I strap on my bags, and, with as elegant a movement as I can muster so early in the morning, I ride off the pavement while hauling my right leg over the saddle and settle down to enjoy the sleepy quiet of my street. At the end of it, I turn right into a larger street which quite quickly crosses an even larger street. One day, as I approached the crossing of these two, I saw two tractors with trailers full of sand, driving at full force from left to right. I was going quite quickly so while I began breaking for them, I also allowed my bicycle to swerve to the other side of the street before reaching the crossing. It was very early and there was no other traffic about. The tractors passed in a flurry of noise and power and just behind them appeared a cyclist who wanted to turn into the road I was just coming from. I hope you can still follow this. I was still on the wrong side of the road and he needed to cycle around me. Nothing very dramatic really and nothing happened. I said sorry of course, as one does. He had plenty of time to adjust and swerve slightly and we would have each gone our own way were it not for the fact that he made a disapproving and aggressive grunt with the necessary expletives. I was feeling difficult. I stopped the bike and called after him: “Why do you need to be so aggressive?” He stops his bike and turns around too, ready for the situation to turn ugly. “What?”, he said, while jerking his head upwards. I walk towards him, lower my voice and speak calmly (I am definitely the hero in this story): “Why did you need to be so aggressive just now? Yes, I'll admit I was wrong; I was on the wrong side of the road; I am sorry for that and I will happily apologize for it again, but nothing happened, surely this little inconvenience did not warrant such an aggressive and unpleasant reaction?” At that moment he said something interesting. He had by now realised I was not going to start a slanging match or worse, but simply wanted a difficult conversation. However it was early and the mood was not propitious to such conversations. Nevertheless he said something which kept me going for quite a while. He said: “It is what happens, it is natural, you react like that automatically (het is natuurlijk, je gaat vanzelf zo reageren...)” It has to be said that he said this in the sense that he found it quite natural to react in such a way to such a flagrant abuse of the traffic rules, after all, I should have been on the other side of the road. I was wrong and he was in his rights and he had felt he should make me aware of this. The fact that he did so in such an unpleasant and harsh way did not count. (I think he is beginning to take over the role of hero here, let me try to redeem it without becoming too pedantic) I found this interesting because it illustrates, and is an instance of, the mechanism whereby we invest our responsibility for the way we respond to the world in the other. I had been wrong and he had been in his right to feel angry. As far as he was concerned the nature of his response was merely his natural response. And natural means, what exactly? I don't know. Automatic. But what does that mean? Blind? Unthinking? Instinctive? Physiological? However, a different response is possible. He could have taken a wider view of the situation; he could have just been generous and smiled and said something like OOps... You always carry responsibility for your response. You can overcome your primary aggressions. They don't even need to be there in the first place, surely? Responsibility is about your answer, your response to a situation. In French and English we emphasise the response, in Dutch and German we emphasize the answerableness of responsibility (Verantwoordelijkheid) Your responsibility is precisely located in your response to the world that meets you. In your response lies your responsibility in a way that you can never divest it, for even when you invest something else with the authority do decide something for you, it is still you who has done the investment. Your response to the world, to a situation is where your chances and your responsibilities lay! You cannot divest yourself of that responsibility not even by reducing yourself to a simple machine, a coping dasein, to put it in Heidegger’s words. It is still your response. So there. He was wrong in dealing with my wrongness. There are two wrongs to be dealt with here. He then said something even more interesting, just as he remounted his bike, he turned his head and called out to me: “If we all just follow the rules, we’ll get along just fine.” I am sure that this was what he genuinely felt. The rules have a redemptive function. And that is true, they do. But to what extent? With this sort of redemption comes something rather disquieting; in its most extreme form we could call it enslavement. Rules, like traffic rules, exist where possibility and the potential for crisis exists.  It may be tempting to invest rules with an absolute authority, but would that be a good thing? It would quickly reduce behaviour to the absurd, the kind of absurdity one feels while waiting for a red light at 3 o’clock in the morning on a deserted street. Such obeisance to rules would reduce humanity to mere dasein and would put in place the conditions for another episode of collective human disaster. Rules are useful as guidelines and they can help apportion responsibility in a situation where things go wrong, after all they systematically privilege certain behaviour over other behaviour and call the one right and lawful and the other wrong and unlawful. But thay must never be more than a guide and a boundary for the process of justice. They have no metaphysical validity. If I had caused an accident, I would certainly have been to blame. But I didn’t. The thing I did wrong was, from the perspective of that particular situation, rather minimal, had minimal effect as far as that situation was concerned. His reaction on the other hand was extremely unpleasant. It made public space into nasty space, a space of hardness, aggression and malice, a space of gorilla –like behaviour, a space in which all responsibility for our humanity was being invested in the rules. I would have preferred politeness in that situation. I have not seen him since even though I still do the same route at the same time every day of my working life...but never blindly.


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