Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Who wants to go through life defining themselves as a 'non-driver'?

Brendan O'Neill raises the important issue of how filling in a form forces us to indelibly define our lifelong identity by ticking a box. But for some reason he is only willing to tackle the easiest question: religion.

There are bigger issues here.

Campaigning cyclists are gear-gnashingly worried that insufficient numbers of people will tick the “Cars In This Household: None” box. The Rail Passengers Association is on a mission to encourage as many non-drivers as possible to declare their non-driving. It argues that only by getting a realistic snapshot of how many cars there are in modern-day Britain (fewer than we think, apparently) can we challenge such allegedly problematic institutions as multi-story car parks, and the privileging of Jeremy Clarkson in various prime time BBC TV programmes.

But if lots of non-drivers choose not to tick “Cars In This Household: None”, I won’t be surprised. Why? Because people generally don’t like to define themselves negatively, by what they aren’t rather than by what they are. “Cars: None” – it sounds so passive, almost identity-effacing, like "No Milk, Please" or "No Telegraph Today, Thanks". The majority of non-drivers, of which I am one, see our non-possession of a driving licence not as the be-all and end-all of who we are, not as the thing that defines us, but simply as an indication that we've had better things to do than get around to taking the test. Our lack of a driving licence is in many ways the least interesting thing about us. It merely indicates how we don’t get around, rather than saying anything about which modes of transport we do use (in my case, Boris bikes and the number 100 bus).

That’s the trouble with the new tubism of the Brunel-ite, occasionally ranting, intolerant variety – it is seeking to create a movement based on a non-use, based on the absence of something (a car) rather than on the presence of something (a hobby horse). It is entirely negative, allowing itself to be defined by its relationship to car drivers: “They are crazy because they don't drive in the bus lane; we are rational because we do.” All those recent hare-brained schemes to create a new out-and-proud public transport movement, with Americans being invited to “come out” as cyclists and join the apparently enlightened Bob Crow-Boris Johnson set of brave car-bashers, even to brand themselves with a neon yellow high-vis tattoo, are ultimately aimed at building a school of thought defined by its absence of a certain kind of paperwork: the right to use a car. It has to be the least inspiring movement of recent years. It only tells people what they should not drive, and hectors them for being dumb and gullible if they do drive it.

It’s no wonder non-drivers at large – everyday, normal tube users and train commuters outside of the irascible metropolitan set for whom cars are the greatest evil – have not been signing up to the new Crossrail movement. That is presumably because they don’t want to define themselves as “non-drivers” when, in reality, they might well drive a variety of things: golf balls, screws into walls, hard bargains, snakes out of Ireland, their editors up the wall, whatever. It is a very sad and hollow man who goes through life advertising to anyone who will listen what he doesn’t drive, yet who rarely articulates the vehicles and footwear he does travel in. Some people will likely pass over the “Cars: None” box not because they are daft or brainwashed, but for the same reason that they keep their distance from public transport – because they don’t believe that their lack of a car is the very essence of their journey to work.

Please note: Unlike the "religion" question, question H14 (Cars or Vans) is a so-called "mandatory" question. Exercise your human right to civil disobedience and join the inspiring rebels in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt by refusing to tick the "None" box. You will not be kettled.

Next up, how to avoid defining yourself by your lack of an NVQ Level 3.


Mike Young said...

We have to be really careful about the defining categories. There is an example where this has led to a civil war and genocide. This was in Rwanda.

They needed to define everyone as either Tutsi or Hutu (as Tutsis would vote for a Tutsi leader and Hutus for a Hutu leader). What if you couldn’t say which tribe you were in? (eg if you had a Hutu mother and Tutsi father). Well you had to be in one group, so they used . If you are above a certain height then you are Tutsi, if below another height, then Hutu. If you were in the middle you were Tutsi if you had more than 6 Cows, otherwise you were Hutu).

What this categorisation did was permanently divide the country into two camps, by forcing those people who were in the middle to commit themselves. These would be the very people who could have acted as mediators and stopped small events escalating into civil war. Well everyone knew what side they were on and the rest, as they say, is history!

Kayla said...

I didn't perceive the question as negatively, perhaps because I have been a driver, and choose to live in a place I do not need to own a car? To me the question did not suggest that I could or could not drive, it rather suggested that I did or did not need a car to which I am very satisfied to answer I do not need one. Interesting how circumstance changes your perception of the question. Your view of it would not have crossed my mind at all.