The Zipper

One of the lines for which Thomas Hobbes is justly famous is that life without a strong central government (Leviathan, he said) is “solitary, nasty, poor, brutish, and short.”  [1] What he meant is that one of government’s prized functions is to keep the natural order of things from obtaining, by which the large and strong oppress the small and weak. His alternative was the rule of law, which, I have to admit, sounds like the better alternative.

The interposition of the law regularizes conduct by putting the strong and the weak under the same set of rules. Their behavior toward each other, in other words, is constrained by their obedience to a common rule that is not necessarily in harmony with with the preferences of either.

That said, let’s talk about merging traffic.

My stepdaughter, Melisa Jaenisch, took and passed a German drivers’ test many years zipper 1after she first passed one in the U.S. One of the ideas she came across in the German experience is “the Zipper.” If you can picture one line of cars approaching a single lane of highway from the highway and another from an access ramp (Einfahrt), you have the two elements that need to be “zipped together.” The fundamental principle can be put simply as “take turns,” but that neglects the point I am trying to make here, which is that the order of precedence is not controlled by the preferences of the drivers.

In the U. S., merging onto a freeway from an access ramp is more or less petitionary. The drivers already in the right hand lane pretend not to notice the drivers that are trying to merge. Eye contact is carefully avoided. Some of those drivers are generous and make space for the next merging car to join the lane; some rudely refuse even the smallest space. But nasty or nice, these are interpersonal arrangements and they should not be.  They should be social norms.

That is what the Zipper is about. You, the merging vehicle, have a right to pull into the lane in front of me. [2] And you, the next merging vehicle have the obligation to wait your turn and merge into the lane behind me. Neither one of these drivers is asking anything of the other. This is not personal. This is how we do it here. There is no asking and granting of favors. There is only the exercise of the rights that all agree each driver has.

I imagine that the Zipper doesn’t always work perfectly.  On the other hand, it is hard to imagine road rage emerging from the exercise of rights and duties that all drivers acknowledge. It is not at all hard to imagine road rage emerging from refusing to allow cars to merge at all–”not in front of ME; who do you think YOU are?–”or to imagine a jacked up Ram bulling its way into a line of well-behaved Priuses.

We survive these little traffic mishaps. I knew I was using hyperbole when I [3] began with Hobbes’ “war of each against all.” Still, these little encounters are often reliable indicators of some more general attitude toward the relationship between the society and the individual. Let’s look at some examples.

The presuppositions of trash

I have a special dislike for people who throw their trash on the streets and sidewalks or in the public parks. Why would anyone do that? I picture my brothers and I walking down the street together as young boys and I imagine one of us throwing the wrapper from a candy bar on the sidewalk. Mother, who was a world class user of teachable moments, would have stopped the parade and would have asked the offending brother, “Who do you think is going to pick that up?”

It’s an interesting question although she intended it only rhetorically. “Someone is going to pick it up” is implicit in the question. This will be someone who didn’t throw it there and who, therefore, ought not to be obliged to pick it up. It is an imposition on the person who will have to decide either to pick up my trash or to suffer a trashy environment through no fault of her own. So implicit in Mother’s question was the idea that I should not have thrown it, or, having thrown it, should pick it up because only that preserves the relationship of rights and duties of which society is properly constructed.

zipper 2I think of that example frequently. Daily, to tell you the truth. The part of Portland I live in commonly has trash on the streets and sidewalks and in the public parks. And particularly, for some reason, in the bus shelters. There is a lot of McDonalds trash. There are coffee cups. Sometimes a shoe and a sock. Newspapers and magazines. Orange peels and apple cores. And when I see that, mostly on my way back from Starbucks, which is why I see it so often, Mother’s question comes to me: “Who do you think is going to pick that up?”  Obviously, no one.

Someone thought that throwing the trash on the sidewalk was the appropriate thing to do. Was it an act of contempt for the people who don’t want trash on the sidewalk? Was it thoughtless; was it angry? What is a retaliation against “society” for damages real or imagined?

Just smile and wave

I was walking across a busy street in my neighborhood recently, when a “street person†and an associate walked across a busy intersection, with one light and against the other. It stopped traffic in both directions. The drivers were puzzled initially, but it wouldn’t have taken very long for them to get angry. The two men seemed in good spirits, waving to the drivers who had stopped so as not to run them over.  The redhead in the illustration below is obviously not a street person, but she is jaywalking in Normal, Illinois where my younger son was at the time I wrote this, visiting his mother.  Ah.

zipper 3I watched incredulously from the corner as I waited for the walk sign to come on and the street person noticed me. I don’t know what attitude he attributed to me but he decided that he owed me an explanation of how he was managing to do what he was doing. Or he may have thought of it as a tutorial. “Just smile and wave,” he called to me. I think he was answering the question, “How would I go about doing that myself? It seems to be working really well for you and your friend.”

There was none of the contempt for “society” that I so easily attribute to the trash people. This guy was doing something he wanted to do. He was sauntering, unhurried and unapologetic, from the southwest corner of the intersection to the northeast corner. It was much more efficient for him than crossing the street to the east, then the street to the north. He may have imagined that the people who sat in their cars while he and his friend did that were pleasant people who were happy to accommodate him, but my guess is that he is more likely to have thought them dupes, people who can be endlessly exploited and who will not know how prevent it.

I think of the trash leavers as angry young men. I don’t know who they actually are; that’s how I picture them. I think of the street guy as an experienced con man, taking what he wants from whatever suckers are there. Neither of these abuses squares at all with the Zipper, which is a way of thinking of society made up of rights and obligations. [4]

I think the idea of a society made up of rights and obligations as a society with a good foundation. I think that if a society is only rights and obligations, it will be rigid and dreary. Human society is so much more than that. The is generosity and gratitude and unexpected kindness to be found everywhere. I love those!

But they don’t control merging traffic. For that, we need rights and obligations.

[1] For reasons I have never understood, “poor” is frequently left out of this set, just as “toil” is often left out of Winston Churchill, “blood, toil, tears, and sweat.”

[2] But that does not mean that the five vehicles in line behind the first merging vehicle have the right to crowd into the lane just because someone is willing to let them do it. When I give up my place in line to more than one vehicle, I am giving up that space on behalf of all the cars behind me in my lane. They, too, will have to wait as I allow half a dozen cars to pull into the lane in front of me. They are in front of you, too, of course.
[3]  My understanding of why I should use “I” there instead of “me” is that the object of the verb “picture” is the clause “my brothers and I walking….” and that the phrase “my brothers and I” is the subject of the clause.  That is why it needs to be in the nominative case when a quick glance makes it look like the object of “to picture” and thus in the objective case.  That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.  Unless, of course, I’m wrong.

[4] And while I am using Germany as the exemplar of the Zipper notion of society, I’d have to say that parts of Germany are clearly unzipped. The graffiti on the overpasses, for instance, is a striking example of the failure to answer my mother’s question, “Who do you think is going to clean that up.” On the other hand, you hardly ever see trash in the streets.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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