Philosophy of traffic jams
The sweat pours down your back, the motorbike that had wedged itself between your side view mirror and the Suzuki pick up next to it tries to inch further and further its exhaust filled breath close and intimate on your every pore. A ten-year-old beggar splays his rag triumphantly across your windshield gleeful to have done so even after you just screamed at him. If this misery was not enough, the line of cars next to yours, from behind which veered out five minutes ago, begins to move, speeding ahead with mocking abandon, the one you’re stuck in now just stays put. You fiddle with your phone, no one has texted you in the five seconds since you checked it before; the aching elongation of time brought on by waiting is yours alone.
The situation to all of us lucky enough to ever venture on to a road; the generally calm losing their patience, the generous never once allowing anyone an ounce of space. What does, you may ask a traffic jam have to do with philosophy, the search for truth? What higher calling can squeeze in among the debasement of angry automobiles and their bilious effusions; the mistake of one negligent driver damning scores of countless others. Traffic jams especially those on Pakistan’s tight roads, whose broken boundaries never seem to hold in the new harvests of bikes and cars that sprout daily out of the asphalt; represent essentially a microcosm of the lived universe itself. The basic facts of life, the limited ounces of opportunity against the vast demands of those who ache for it; the absence or presence of a lawmaking authority that would impose order or rules are all implicated here. The attitude of a person and of a country in a traffic jam tells of more than just the quest of getting from one place to another.
In the 16th century, the British philosopher Thomas Hobbes distinguished the political community from the primal “state of nature” where the latter is the anarchic condition that makes a peaceful life devoid of fear of annihilation impossible. The political community is defined primarily by the agreement of all to agree to a social contract where laws are imposed on everyone to move from anarchy to organisation. That was the sixteenth century, in this new millennium, it could well be argued that the traffic jam, especially the Pakistani traffic jam where traffic cops are missing, rules are unknown, the illiterate ply the same thoroughfare as the highly learned, where death can lurk at intersections and robbers at stoplights; it is the traffic jam that is the new state of nature. Here human beings are again reduced to their most basic; unencumbered by ethics or morality or religion in any way that may impose obligations on the treatment of a fellow person. In traffic jams in Pakistan, the pious are seen hurling abuses at women, the poor avenging their gripes against the rich and those having a gun or a knife or a Prado rolling over everyone else. The traffic jam is the new Hobbesian state of nature.
It is not just that our ethics had not evolved enough to think of the road as a “community” even if its members are incidental and random. In the solely personal internalised musings of philosophy, traffic jams also constitute the random, unfilled, unexpected shreds of modern life sandwiched between getting from work to school to home are also mini-confrontations with the self where the script is not programmed and the outcome is not known. It is in a traffic jam perhaps, that you are most likely to think of the most unwanted thought, where your helplessness and vulnerability against a vast mass of others presses most agonisingly against your own singular existence. Philosophy after all, is an examination of the human condition, and perhaps in the next moment when you are besieged by suddenly immobilised movement, you too can take a moment to philosophise.
Rafia Zakaria is a columnist for DAWN. She is a writer and PhD candidate in Political Philosophy whose work and views have been featured in the New York Times, Dissent the Progressive, Guernica, and on Al Jazeera English, the BBC, and National Public Radio. She is the author of Silence in Karachi, forthcoming from Beacon Press.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.