Anonymity encourages anger, dehumanizes others

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As usual, my birthday landed on the cusp of fall this year. I decided to mark my 30th birthday, the day I officially became old, by spending the last hot days of September on a solo camping trip around Grand Traverse Bay.

My actual birth date passed while I was driving somewhere on M-22, killing time during the oppressive afternoon heat. I did a lot of driving that weekend, most of it pleasant, some of it extremely not.

Without much congestion anywhere, me and the rest of the weekend road warriors mostly did a fine job of getting to our destinations safely and staying out of each other’s merry ways.

But there are always the outliers, the aggressive drivers who have apparently entered a state of psychotic rage upon touching a steering wheel and seem so desperate to put their own lives and everyone else’s at risk.

Somewhere outside Leland, two SUVs fly past me, one clearly chasing the other. The leader slams on his brakes, their pursuer swings around to take the advantage and cut them off. One forces another onto the shoulder, nearly off the road. They stay entangled as they pull too far ahead for me to see, like two angry hornets sparring. I never saw a flaming wreck on the side of the road after that, so I assume both parties survived this road rage incident. But who knows?

It struck me then how differently we treat complete strangers depending on the circumstances.

On another day, those drivers might have driven up to the same bar and become acquainted over a beer instead of being locked in a race to commit vehicular manslaughter. Maybe they would have exchanged numbers and became life-long friends.

The same, I realized, is true for just about any of us. That nice barista who greets you in the morning could be the one throwing a drink at your car on the way home. Your favorite professor might brake-check you on the way to class tomorrow, then later smile as they return your assignment. Have you ever been tailgated relentlessly, only to realize that it was your neighbor the entire time, and now you’re both in for an awfully awkward walk into your apartment building?

Automobiles, essentially immense balls of kinetic energy fueled by explosive gas, seem to completely transform people’s attitudes and perceptions by acting as both a sort of armor and a source of rough anonymity; it’s often hard to identify drivers, especially if the windows are tinted.

But driving isn’t the only area where a sense of anonymity and protection from consequences can lead to heightened aggression and violence.

A major reason I’d felt the need to get away for the weekend was the depressing state of the news every day. This summer was defined, in no small part, by far-right protests and the stunning backlash of anti-fascist organizers who used “Black Bloc” tactics to disrupt them.

The double anonymity of having your face covered in a crowd of identically dressed comrades is a tactical decision – it prevents anti-fascist protesters from being identified and harassed afterwards. It also makes any property damage or assaults committed by their side difficult to pin on any particular person.

Alt-right groups and militias have co-opted this tactic as well. They often show up to protests in gear that not only hides their identity, but also serves as body armor for the fights they desperately seek with left-wing protesters.

Much like the power and protection offered by a car, the anonymity afforded by the internet and masked street politics inevitably leads to dehumanization of others and an endless ratcheting up of the selective callousness of our existences.

Internet trolls harass someone for being transsexual online. A stranger slashes your tires because they didn’t like your bumper sticker. Someone nearly causes a pile-up because they don’t think you signaled long enough.

You guys really have no idea how lucky northern Michigan is in terms of traffic. I used to pray for an aneurysm every day while stuck in Los Angeles gridlock. If the way people drive around here has taught me anything, it’s that road rage and inconsiderate driving have nothing to do with region or even with the volume of cars on the road.

It’s us, it’s our puny primate brains grown drunk on the feeling of hurtling down the highway in a giant death machine.

As smart as we are, there’s still something twisted and primal within us. We’re capable of building and piloting these amazing machines, but we can’t set aside the animalistic nonsense once we’re driving them.

And it’s not just some of us. Admit it, you’ve felt it too. The illogical offense when someone wants to merge in front of you, the rage at someone following you too closely, the urge to teach another driver a lesson they won’t forget.

We’re all capable of hiding behind a vehicle, or a mask or a keyboard, and becoming someone different and horrible. What’s hard, and so necessary in these times, is recognizing the humanity in everyone around us every day.