What do real men drive?
While sitting on a street bench, a middle-aged man passes by us using one of the newest and probably the most hated forms of transportation at the moment – an electric scooter. Quite expectedly, there was a small outburst of protest and disapproval of this contemporary traffic factor, primarily regarding it as a safety threat, but also condescendingly characterizing the drivers as people who are just jumping on a bandwagon. Shortly after, one of the present individuals makes a point related to a completely different, for this text more interesting dimension of this phenomenon, which is related to defining of the social identity. Namely, her main impression was that this “child’s gadget” is simply not adequate for a man, a “real man”. The remark referred to the question: „How would a slightly bigger and stronger man look on an electric scooter?” Supposedly silly, it just doesn’t work. I wonder, would a slightly “stronger” man really look silly on an electric scooter? He probably would, but why? And what if the scooter was a little bigger? But the pondering is useless, a “real man” drives a “real car”, as big, luxurious, and fast as possible.
At that moment, it became crystal clear that no conversation about energy efficiency, ecological footprint, etc. cannot match the firmly established conceptions of the social status and identity of the “real man”. To be fair, this is not about whether driving an electric scooter is actually a viable tactic for climate change mitigation or not, whether it’s good to advocate for micromobility instead of car driving in the context of safety, etc. We can simply and safely note the already quite obvious and objectively supported social need to reduce the number of cars in city traffic and to seriously devote ourselves to the optimization of urban mobility, precisely to stop subordinating spatial planning to cars as basic means of transport.
Therefore, we simply use this as a textbook example in which a new, let’s assume more ecologically acceptable technological phenomenon and social practice collide with historically produced and established social norms, statuses, and identities. Not many status categories and identity frameworks are reproduced more often and defined more precisely than the “real man”. If we add here the fact that car drivers are primarily adult middle-aged men, we get a head-on collision that is almost impossible to resolve verbally, by agreement, on the spot. This requires making a thorough case record and a serious procedural process that has the potential to stretch on for years. In order to tackle this, we need to take a little closer look at car drivers.
IN THE REPUBLIC OF SERBIA, THERE ARE EXPRESS GENDER INEQUALITIES IN OWNERSHIP OF CARS AND DRIVER’S LICENSES IN FAVOR OF ADULT MEN, MOSTLY MIDDLE-AGED.
A significant part of this demographic group also had the greatest access to material resources historically and to this day holds the greatest amount of social power, which is manifested, among other things, in the creation of public and private space. Furthermore, as material income is very closely related to status, social classes that have privileged access to material resources for centuries, reproduce certain status symbols based on material grounds. As these social classes express certain status symbols, individuals who aspire to find themselves in their position tend to reproduce them as best as they can. In other words, many people do/buy various things to improve their perceived social status.
This phenomenon in the context of consumerism is known in the literature as “conspicuous consumption”. It is primarily motivated by the display of a certain social status, be it an iPhone or a good old lion sculpture on a front yard fence. The bottom line is that utility and aesthetic value are often secondary to status symbols that are formed through the community. We also tend to spend more when we are accompanied by others as well as on things that are more visible. For example, the usefulness, necessity, and cost-effectiveness of a particular stove model are calculated for every potentially spent euro, while this kind of calculation does not play a big role when it comes to placing magnificent sculptures of lions on front yard fences. They “pay off” in another way.
A variation of this phenomenon can be recognized even in the area of public works. For example, building a porous path in the park that is not too ecologically invasive, that contributes to the preservation of biodiversity, reduces the effect of urban heat islands and ultimately puts less strain on the knees and joints, can very easily be interpreted by users as a sloppy, poor or frugal solution. In that context, it is often politically more rational and safer to pave it “by the book“ all neatly with concrete. Similarly, it is maybe better to throw our old shoes in the trash than for our neighbor to see us going to the cobbler. Because it is more likely that a neighbor will characterize us as poor, stingy, or petty than as environmentally responsible, practical, and humble. After all, frugality is most often associated with lower social status, while abundance, which inevitably implies the creation of surpluses and therefore waste (of food, clothing, etc.), has historically been associated with higher social status.
WHAT WAS ONCE CONSIDERED A DESIRED BEHAVIOR AND REPRESENTED THE CONSEQUENCES OF A HIGH SOCIAL POSITION, AFTER IT BECOMES A PART OF EVERYDAY LIFE THROUGH TECHNOLOGICAL DEVELOPMENT, SOMETIMES REMAINS IN THE SPHERE OF SOCIAL IDENTITY WHICH IS NOT QUESTIONED AS MUCH FOR QUITE SOME TIME.
In other words, some forms of behavior that have evolved in a certain historical context, at one point simply cease to be in accordance with the contemporary requirements and challenges. Let’s take a meat-rich diet as an example. We don’t have to go into the distant past to find a period when meat was mostly eaten once a week or a couple of times a week while the most privileged classes were in a position to afford meat on a daily basis, which signaled a certain kind of material stability and independence. So today we know exactly what real, big, and strong men who are able to provide for themselves and their families generally eat – meat, in every meal and in every form. And they don’t eat a little, but a lot, more precisely as much as they want.
How do you convince a “real man” to replace some of his car mileage with a bicycle or to slightly reduce his weekly meat intake (assuming there is a reason for this)? Any argument in favor of personal health, mitigating the negative effects of climate change, etc., will not have much chance in a clinch with the identity reproduced for years, currently perceived as such by close social groups, implicitly connected with increased access to material resources and various other socially desirable privileges. It is usually not productive to box from this clinch, sometimes it is advisable to save strength and change the ring in order to use more effective combinations.
Hypothetical dialogue is conducted not only with an individual, but indirectly with the centuries-old social context, that is, beliefs, attitudes, and values that influence the formation of identity, strengthened by emotions over the years, and which develops and reproduces within close social groups. Individuals tend to maintain social belonging, that is, to avoid potential forms of ostracism by adopting undesirable forms of behavior or forms of behavior that will not bring them an advantage in the context of social status. Moreover, there are also well-documented feedback effects that manifest themselves in cases where initial beliefs become even stronger when exposed to opposing arguments and evidence.
GENERALLY, ANY EXPRESSION OF STATEMENTS THAT ARE OPPOSITE TO PRE-EXISTING ONES IS EXPERIENCED TO A CERTAIN EXTENT AS AN ATTACK ON IDENTITY.
The intensity will depend on many factors, but no matter how intelligent, educated, familiar with the principles of formal logic, and trained in critical thinking, we all experience this, and our reaction is primarily emotional. It is desirable to recognize it, to deal with it in the best possible way, and to participate in the production of social circumstances that enable constructive dialogue. However, even with the best intentions, this is not sufficient for mass behavioral change, especially not as quickly as current environmental challenges dictate. To the previously outlined examples, we could add a whole series of well-substantiated phenomena and mechanisms that make constructive and purposeful communication significantly more difficult for us. The most recently tested one refers to the fact that our understanding of even relatively banal and basic concepts and associations differs significantly from other individuals while at the same time, we are quite optimistic about the common understanding of them. Research published in March of this year showed that the probability that two randomly selected people have the same view of the term “penguin”, that is, that their understanding of the concept of “penguin” matches, is only 12%.
Finally, if one form of behavior is in harmony with a certain social identity, critical argumentation does not have an excessive chance of modifying said behavior. Just as an unsustainable or socially undesirable form of behavior is most often not chosen by means of some analytical method, it most likely will not change exclusively through using one. It is advisable to strive to materially change reality in a way that enables, encourages, or conditions targeted choices. In the context of urban mobility and the design of public space, there is a conflict between the interests of different social groups with class admixtures, where the methods of constructive dialogue are desirable but secondary. The primary goal is to empower social groups that historically didn’t have sufficient opportunity to influence the creation of public space and enable them to express their needs and realize their interest.
Author: Sinisa Borota, sociologist