Seeing Taiwanese's Lack of Self-Control From Blind Cars

Seeing Taiwanese's Lack of Self-Control From Blind Cars
Photo Credit: Marcus Pink @Flickr CC BY 2.0
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Sometimes inconspicuous phenomena or occurrences are windows showing us a bigger picture and turn minor events into something quite symptomatic. One of these phenomena can be found on the roads of Taiwan at night.

Whenever driving in Kaohsiung for about thirty minutes at night I can see an estimated three or four cars on the streets without their headlights turned on. I find this rather unusual because it doesn’t happen in Europe this frequently; only occasionally do you see “blind cars” at night. Admittedly, no statistics are available to me corroborating my claims.

But the difference is significant. One may look for an explanation, and I assume it has something to do with cultural differences. I am talking about my experiences in Kaohsiung here.

There are two things that need explanation, the first being the fact that so many drivers here in Kaohsiung are on the road at night in a kind of camouflage mode. Why are drivers not being immediately alerted when driving in darkness with no lights coming from the dashboard? Why is here such a lack of attention when driving?

What may help explain it is a culturally induced lack of critical self-observation; human beings have the ability not only to perceive the outside world, the ‘real’ world, but also to perceive one’s own perceptions. I do, think or see something, and I’m aware of all this. This self-awareness is critical not only for gaining reflective distance to oneself, but also for evaluating one’s actions and thoughts as a form of self-control that relates them to the social environment. This social conscience is the power that permanently calibrates one’s behavior, leading the person to willfully follow the changing social values.

But self-control is a relatively scarce good in Taiwan. Here this control is often the job of cultural routines and of imposed obligations hammered into the minds through outdated educational paradigms. The self is not asked to agree, but just to obey. However, what you get this way is sheer discipline, but not self-control or self-discipline with a mind that critically looks at itself. Once the imposer is gone, so is discipline. For example, abolish roll calls in class if you are a teacher and soon you would be sitting with only a few students.

I believe there is a link between the lack of critical self-observation, reduced self-control, increased absentmindedness and carelessness in situations where others are involved.
But there are also other signs indicating the mental slumber of road-users in Taiwan. For instance the setting of indicators that warn drivers of the turns coming up. Winding roads are good places to observe countless absent-minded drivers who confuse turns with crossroads or bifurcations that would offer choices. Why would one trust these drivers?

Another example in line with the previous example is the extreme slow driving once having entered a main road from parking lots or smaller lanes. It seems like these drivers briefly lose orientation and need some time to readjust their minds for more complex road circumstances. It does not seem to cross their mind that drivers behind them may be affected by this sudden behavior.

This leads to another symptom; typically, local drivers move on roads in total indifference to what is going on behind them. But nobody cares anyway because those driving behind are of the same flock. Their mindless patience that sheepishly tolerates any traffic behavior further enhances mindless driving in Taiwan.

The second major point I wish to make seems to be even more symptomatic for this culture. You occasionally see “blind cars” on the streets of Europe, but usually not for long. Whenever such a car is spotted by pedestrians or drivers close by, they immediately signal the driver with gestures, calls, flashing lights or honking. This is an intuitive reaction of most people; blind cars won’t get far because people usually care about public matters.

The difference is in Taiwan public matters are often still treated as private ones. Cars on roads without lights at nights are not considered occurrences that need interfering. There are times I’m driving behind such cars for minutes without coming across a single person trying to help. (I refrain from intervening during these “field studies.”)

Photo Credit: Timothy Vollmer @Flickr CC BY 2.0

Photo Credit: Timothy Vollmer @Flickr CC BY 2.0

Why does this difference exist?

Caring for strangers is not part of the social fabric of the Taiwan culture, which is a family-oriented society in which social activities typically involve relatives. Naturally, this way of life reduces the circle of people you regularly meet and learn to care for; non-family members aren’t really on the radar of one’s concern in such societies. It’s paradoxical that, as I believe, most people here would like to help. But if strangers are involved they seem to be afraid that their help might be interpreted as interference in private matters, so they had better not interfere or help.

The moral concept guiding such behavior is what biologists call reciprocal altruism. It’s a form of tit-for-tat philosophy by which favors are granted to others because you know they would be reciprocated later on if needed. This biology-based concept of ethics emerges from prehistoric times when people moved in circles so small that encounters with the others from that circle could not be avoided. In other words, you had better be nice to people since there were hardly any strangers around.

We share such ethical intuition with our phylogenetic ancestors, apes for instance, who still move in controlled hordes where a stranger means danger. But reciprocal altruism practiced as a main moral principle is an ethics for monkeys. Human beings can do better. We can expand our favors to those we know we would never meet again; we can do so for the sole reason that it is the right thing to do. Our reasoning abilities allow us to “expand the circle” (P. Singer) of care to a much wider range, making moral attitudes that privilege clanship (or kinship) obsolete. People are not right or good only because we share the same blood with them; such thinking would corrupt us.

There is an inclination in Taiwan to put one’s heads into the sand when strangers need help. Such moral “ostrichification” is certainly nourished in relatively closed societies, such as the Taiwanese, where the focus of care has always been on one’s in-group.

But this pseudo-ethical thinking darkens one’s mind. One may wish them to literally turn on their headlights and see more of a world that actually deems these people to be strange.

First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: Joey Chung