This was all academic, a discussion of why cars get "agency", until this past weekend when everything changed.
This is a subject I have been noodling around about for months: why is it that when there is a crash involving a car and a human, the driver of the car seems to be little more than a witness. If they are found to have been texting or drinking, now deemed to be socially unacceptable, then they are blamed. But otherwise, in most cases, the crash becomes an “accident” -- an unavoidable mishap, a tragedy for everyone concerned. The car, in the meantime, is given what in sociology is called “agency”, a mind of its own. Wikipedia defines it as “the capacity of an actor to act in a given environment.”
My two favourite examples come from Don Kostelec shown above, who finds two articles from the same paper, where drivers of cars actively kill horses, but people are passively killed by cars. A difference in words and voice.
Or the more hilarious one from Kyle Miller in Halifax, where drivers kill geese but cars kill or injure people.
The cognitive dissonance around cars is a great ally of terrorists, sowing doubt about responsibility.— Greg Shill (@greg_shill) August 13, 2017
The attacker was a Nazi, not a car. pic.twitter.com/uMjW4mtqTE
But it was all fun and games until this last weekend in Charlottesville, where the twisting and turning over how to deal with the car reached new heights.
"Bomb Collides With Hiroshima Amidst Clashes Between Uranium Isotopes and Japanese" pic.twitter.com/jKFn1N2ckJ— Scott Vrooman (@mescottvrooman) August 13, 2017
Many people did this, but poor journalist Kim Fischer wins the prize with her tweet about the vehicle being accused of hitting people, which is even worse than a car hitting people. But she was certainly not alone. Nobody wanted to actually say “terrorist hits protesters with car.”
I said “poor Kim Fischer” because she really tried to engage with all of us furious tweeters and explained her careful choice of words, that her tweet was sent out so soon after the event that she really didn’t even know if there was anyone in the car. I am not convinced, given the content of the tweet she is quoting, but at least she tried, and has deleted the tweet. As Doug Gordon notes, we don’t do this with any other weapon.
Gun accused of shooting people. Knife accused of stabbing people. Baseball bat accused of beating people. Doesn't work, does it? https://t.co/QsQmIFmURN— Brooklyn Spoke (@BrooklynSpoke) August 12, 2017
She was not alone; a few journalists engaged in this discussion. I was impressed with the comments from the Washington Post's Martin Weil:
We are phenomenologists. Witnesses saw the CAR hit people. They did not see the driver, or observe his feet. or read his mind.— Martin Weil (@martyweilwapost) August 13, 2017
I get this explanation. Reporter must ask PD if car had defect when pedestrian/bicyclist is killed. If no defect, then "driver" not "car"! https://t.co/hbBHYt36Kv— Don Kostelec (@KostelecPlan) August 13, 2017
Giving agency to the car is almost universal. Even in a powerful Washington Post editorial recently, the concluding sentence was:
But where did it come from? Probably the same place as the use of the word “accident” instead of “crash”. This has been an issue for years. Accident relieved the driver of responsibility; it couldn’t be helped. Or everyone was responsible, just as the President suggests that all parties were responsible for Charlottesville. Charlottesville got both.
Mind boggling to see so many news outlets describing what happened in Charlottesville as an "accident." Do better, journalists.— Brooklyn Spoke (@BrooklynSpoke) August 12, 2017
It was language that went back decades; as the Crash not Accident website notes,
Before the labor movement, factory owners would say "it was an accident" when American workers were injured in unsafe conditions. Before the movement to combat drunk driving, intoxicated drivers would say "it was an accident" when they crashed their cars. Planes don’t have accidents. They crash. Cranes don’t have accidents. They collapse. And as a society, we expect answers and solutions. Traffic crashes are fixable problems, caused by dangerous streets and unsafe drivers. They are not accidents. Let’s stop using the word "accident" today.
After many years of campaigning and complaining, many newsrooms have clued into this and have stopped using the word accident. But using car instead of driver, using passive voice instead of active, works much the same way; "pedestrian hit by car" has a very different ring than "driver hits pedestrian". it eliminates the driver and their action from the story altogether.
Charlottesville should be the impetus to get really serious about a Driver not Car campaign too.