Friday, December 27, 2019

In Encomium after Death in a Crosswalk, Erasing the Driver

Could there be any clearer expression of the way our autoism mystifies and obfuscates than the front page story today?

For families and friends who must mourn, it is of course an awful thing to revisit the original violence and facts of an untimely road death.

There is good reason to want to celebrate the victim with a kind of encomium.

With the Carousel right there at the end of State Street, and Carousel staff as witness and first responder, the crash was also located at an important cultural node and geographical point in Salem.

As a tribute to the pleasures of daily strolling in the city it has significance.

There are many reasons an encomium and wider feature story makes sense. And it is genuinely moving.

Front page today
But we should not forget that the victim fell in an action by a driver on a downtown street. It was not a sudden illness, a meteor falling from the sky, or even a car falling from the sky, something truly accidental and tragic we used to call an "act of God."

Erasing the driver: "hit by car" passive construction
"Hit by car" online
He was in or at a crosswalk and a driver was taking the turn quickly enough, perhaps accelerating into the turn, that they failed to see him in time. A person driving killed him.

"No citations have been issued," and so the paper may feel they must dance around ascribing intent or fault. It could also just be autoist habit and custom. At the moment, we lack ways and rhetorical norms to talk about driver agency and responsibility when an event falls short of any criminal culpability or lesser violation. Even when there is legal innocence, there is still a driver in charge of and responsible for the safe operation of a motor vehicle. (And if citations are ever issued, it will be long after the initial framing of "hit by car" prevailed.)

This is our autoism. We have a legal and liability system that tolerates a wide range of driver error before any fault is officially assigned. Negligence and criminality must meet a very high bar. We have a road system that tolerates a wide range of driver error and forgives it for those protected by a sheet metal exoskeleton, often at the expense of other more vulnerable road users. We have a cultural system that rose early in the 20th century to absolve drivers and it settled on "was hit by a car" as useful expression to avoid messy ambiguity or uncertain legal responsibility. In so many ways we protect and subsidize drivers at the expense of other road users.

In this coverage, then, there is a twin deflection. We deflect from the author of calamity, the driver, to celebrate the victim and to console surviving family and friends in grief; and we deflect from that author, the driver, and displace blame onto the car itself. The urge not to face the driver's role in death is understandable, but not helpful. It mystifies and is part of the way we ignore the carnage from our autoism. We admire the steadfastness of the daughter and sympathize with her grief, but we are not prompted to outrage and action over the driver or over the autoist system. The balance in a piece like this should not be on the driver, but a piece can be clearer about the driver's role and about the costs of our road and car system. As long as the role of the driver is mysterious, or accepted as within normal function, we are able to evade the costs of the road and auto system, and we don't have to do anything about it.

The piece is very nice, but it participates in and reinforces the larger problem of our autoism.

Columbia Journalism Review
For more discussion of language see all posts on our habit of erasing the driver and particularly these recent examples:
For more on the cultural and legal context of our autoism in which we minimize the responsibility of drivers and shift blame to people on foot, see:

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