Friday, April 9, 2010


I'm too civilized.

Lest that sound conceited, let me hasten to explain I see this as a bad thing. (And perhaps I should rephrase: I place too much stock in the tenets of civilized interactions. Or: I rely too heavily on civilization.)

I thrive, insomuch as I do thrive, on order and predictability. My natural instincts seem based upon other people behaving as I would expect in a given situation (by which I think I mean as society expects, but probably the rest of society doesn't really). I become distinctly uncomfortable when people don't play by what I perceive to be the rules of social contact: random strangers asking for money for themselves or to save the environment or for gay rights, the gymno-dancing guys on the train who demand your attention and appreciation and try to demand your money, children too small to recognize that they're in your personal space, teenagers and their inherent unpredictability, and the like. I don't even like participatory theatre because I feel they are breaking the "rules" of theatre and violating the fourth wall. My ire is activated most strongly by people behaving as they like despite rules to the contrary, rules that enhance the flow of life in all its efficiency: people riding their bikes on the sidewalks despite the "no bikes" symbol emblazoned at every crossroad, people who stand on the left side of the escalator clogging everyone else's progress, people who walk four abreast on the sidewalk with a stroller and a dog so they're impossible to pass. Cutting in line, not waiting one's turn, demanding attention and special treatment—all the gravest of sins in my world. The vast majority of things I get angry or concerned about have nothing to do with anything real and inherently wrong; they are simply triggered by people failing to follow the laws (yes, as I perceive them) of polite civilization.

In addition, I have very bad instincts and poor judgment when forced to react quickly. Take the predictable nature of my life out of the equation, and I just simply die. I'm only still alive because the only split-second life-or-death decisions I ever need to make involve traffic, and luckily everyone else is paying attention and trying not to kill me as well. (I'm the kind of person who would die in a fire despite the fire alarm going off simply because no one else seems to think it's a real fire and aren't panicking and running out. I'm not going to be the first one to shrug off the dignity of normal life to break for the exits.)

So what happens when I suddenly find myself in a post-apocalyptic wasteland or (for those of you who prefer less absurd thought experiments) an extended natural disaster situation? After hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes, I somehow doubt people wait patiently in line for what they are aware is insufficient food or medical supplies. Generally the laws of society break down and people are left to fend for themselves, doing whatever is necessary to do so. I can just see myself refusing to make a pain of myself and thus failing to make it onto evacuation buses or getting the dregs of whatever supplies are being passed out because everyone takes more than they actually need or, again, goes before their turn. (Now, in true cases of immediate life or death, I imagine I would overcome my natural tendencies and push and shove with the best of them, but in only moderately dangerous situations—situations where the social order has broken down due to whatever event but where we're not actually in danger of imminent death—I would be at a severe disadvantage since my tendencies toward order and such would be less quickly eroded than others'.)

This is only made worse by my absolute distaste for guns. It is generally thought that in case of any event in which your basement stockpile of canned goods, bottled water, and gold bars might be needed, a gun is as well. (It has been brought to my attention that New Englanders may be unfamiliar with this idea. I suppose that means I have chosen my location well and that in the case of the rapture, belated Y2K disaster, or nuclear holocaust, I will be surrounded by fellow dazed and overly-civilized New Englanders and will perhaps not be taken advantage of.) I'm not entirely sure of the reasons most people would prefer to have a gun in the case of some sort of situation in which the government has collapsed or is simply too busy or too understaffed to deal with the general lawlessness (e.g., Katrina), but I would imagine it is seen mostly as a tool to ensure you don't get pushed around and taken advantage of by other less scrupulous people. There's also shooting squirrels for food and such, I guess, but that only matters once you've run out of tuna fish.

So it seems most people think that in the case of social collapse, people need weapons to protect themselves from people attempting to steal their food/water/supplies (seems reasonable) or looting for other items (though obviously this depends on the disaster; the end times don't seem like a particularly useful time to collect 18 televisions). There is also the idea that there may be roaming gangs with guns (probably, again, primarily to collect food and such from others, but given the situation, they could also simply be having fun terrorizing everyone else or, given a particularly severe and presumably permanent disaster, could be setting themselves up as the new powers that be—I mean, seriously, would you want to have to rely on a sketchy right-wing militia in an emergency situation?), though I have been mocked for this idea as well. (Again, I am particularly thankful to find myself currently situated surrounded by people who find such ideas absurd. I am sure were I still living in Georgia, it would sound much less outlandish in context.)

OK, so as a not particularly strong or intimidating woman with an extreme distaste for guns and unreasonably strong beliefs in civilization and its attendant rules who thus is obviously ill-prepared for the collapse of civilization, what happens to me in such a situation? My food all gets stolen, maybe I get forcibly kicked out of my house or wherever I'm holed up if someone with a gun thinks it's a better base of operations than wherever they are currently, I go out and collect food only to have it taken by someone with a gun who thinks they would benefit from it more than I, I go out to barter for something I need only to be ripped off with no recourse. There is pretty much no way for me to demand adherence to the laws of humanity and justice from from those I encounter without a sizable population (or just a powerful one in form of the government and its police force) backing me up and enforcing such rules.

(And all this is ignoring the more devastating results of a breakdown of society: rapes, hate crimes, torture... People are vicious, and when they feel threatened they will do all manner of abhorrent things to feel in control. When they're the only ones with weapons, they feel strong and like showing off their absolute power and taking advantage of those who are powerless. Once the balance of power has shifted and the rules of polite society and the restraint and civility that come along with them have vanished, I would sure hate to be a gay guy in the middle of, say, Oklahoma. Actually, I'd hate to be a woman much of anywhere. People only have rights because of civilization; take that away, and suddenly people are less concerned about equal rights or being PC. [That's not to say I think everyone secretly hates women and gays and racial minorities, but some people certainly do, and they're more likely to be the ones with guns... Plus, it only takes one.])

So, cheery thoughts this morning. I guess I can either just trust that civilization will never fall, at least for more than a day or two wherever I may be at the time, or I can suck it up and buy a gun. I find it pretty stupid to assume nothing like that could ever happen here and to me, but I don't want to be the kind of person who owns a gun in the interim, so I guess I'll just die if things ever get terrifically bad.


Incidentally, I read an article a few months ago that laid out the difference between moral transgressions and societal transgressions (killing someone versus failing to adhere to the rules of etiquette) and said that psychopaths tend not to make such distinctions. I started to get concerned, as I've long been aware that I tend to find social violations (the gross misuse of homophones, strangers on the street telling me to smile, riding bikes on the sidewalk) to be nearly as significant as actual moral violations (being mean to people, hurting people, being unfair). Apparently psychopaths fail to make the distinction and thus don't find their moral transgressions to be any more significant than the average person finds the transgression of using the wrong fork. I fail to make the distinction and thus find violations of etiquette and manners to be nearly as significant as the average person finds moral transgressions. I am unsure whether this puts me on par with the psychopath or makes me the anti-psychopath.