I recently spent a good amount of time in the office of my local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). In my experience, the DMV is an unhappy place. Typically one must go there to pay a tax, take an exam, or do something else unpleasant. One can count on the fact that one’s task will require one to populate a surfeit of detailed forms with the most banal autobiographical information possible, and, on top of that, one will likely have to queue for a long time in a dreary, crowded room with uncomfortable seats only to be told by an official that one has filled out the wrong forms and that one must start the entire process again.
It seems likely that in every society there are certain commonly shared experiences that typify in important ways characteristic features of life in that society and for this reason occupy a special place in the society’s collective consciousness. I think that visiting the DMV is one such experience for those of us who live in the United States. If you live in the United States, then you’ve probably been to the DMV at least once, and you’ve probably experienced a familiar sort of nebulous dissatisfaction with what goes on there. Try telling someone you’re going to the DMV, and you’ll likely get a sympathetic look and a horror story of some sort (similar things happen when you tell someone you’re getting your wisdom teeth removed). The DMV is one of the regular points of physical contact most of us have with the sprawling, depersonalized bureaucracies that form the foundation of our society. The rigidity and impersonality of the process, combined with the prima facie inconsequence of the tasks one is required to perform, tend to grate on creatures like us.
I’d like to suggest that the experience of going to the DMV is a microcosm of the experience of living in a society with a highly complex bureaucracy. In particular, I suggest that the emotional position one finds oneself in at the DMV represents in miniature the emotional position that our society tends to put us in. Let me explain.
The nebulous dissatisfaction one is prone to experience while visiting the DMV is, I think, a natural reaction to a rather bizarre, unpleasant, and perhaps sometimes unreasonable social situation. Normally in social situations dissatisfaction manifests itself in the form of attitudes that are directed at persons. Some of these, such as resentment, indignation, and disapprobation, are rooted in a perceived lack of good will or regard on the part of the attitude’s object towards oneself or others. Other attitudes, such as anger, exasperation, and disdain, are not inherently interpersonal but nevertheless often are directed at persons. Person-directed attitudes such as these play a role in regulating and ameliorating the interactions of individuals who inevitably have different points of view. They partly constitute the affective lens through which we perceive the world and our place in it, and without them human life and relationships would be unrecognizable. The problem is that these person-directed attitudes are often naturally elicited by, and yet inappropriate in, the DMV.
To make my point entirely concrete, let’s consider a specific case. In California, new residents are required to register their vehicles within sixty days, and to be registered one’s vehicle must first pass a rigorous smog test. A certain first-year philosophy graduate student and new California resident discovered that his car could not pass a smog test without expensive repairs, which he could not afford. Consequently, this graduate student delayed registering his car for some time. Eventually, however, this student was compelled to register his vehicle. His visit to the DMV for that purpose was, by most metrics, a disaster. Our hero had to queue for over an hour, bungled the paperwork at least once, and—murderer at the door!—was honest about how overdue his registration was, which resulted in his paying an exorbitant penalty.
I hope it will not take too great a feat of imagination to envision this student’s mental state. He was indignant about having to pay such a large penalty for failing to register his vehicle sooner even though he could not afford to do so. He was resentful that he had to queue so long in order to pay this unreasonable penalty. No doubt these attitudes were less than ideally rational. They were also entirely human and entirely understandable.
The difficulty for our student was that there was no person at which these natural attitudes could be appropriately directed. After all, he would have been mistaken if he had directed these attitudes towards anyone he actually encountered at the DMV. It’s true that DMV clerks were a cause of the unpleasantness. They took his money; they refused to hear his pleas. But, like cogs in a machine, they were not responsible for it. The same goes for the DMV managers and even, I think, individual California legislators, all of whom have little to no effective control over the policies that the clerks are required to enact. The requirements imposed upon the student were social requirements, and yet there was no particular person who was responsible for them. The requirements were a product of the rigid and impersonal machine of state. Our student, then, found himself in an unsettled position. He experienced person-directed attitudes that were in one way apt, and yet there was no appropriate target of those attitudes. There was a mismatch between the student’s emotional repertoire and his social environment, which required him to suppress rather than express his emotions.
All this may strike you as a tad melodramatic. It is. But I think the student’s conundrum at the DMV typifies a much broader phenomenon. Our social lives are structured by bureaucracies that are to a large extent self-standing. Without them our form of life would not be possible. And yet, as is well known, bureaucracies can reify and propagate all manner of injustice, unreasonableness, and idiocy. This is one of the most salient moral problems of our age. Unfortunately, most of our most important moral emotions—indignation, resentment, disapprobation, and so on—are in the first instance person-directed. They are (at least partly) the product of millions of years of evolution in social environments characterized almost exclusively by face-to-face interactions with familiar conspecifics. Our evolutionary history did not equip us with emotional capacities entirely fit for life in our world, and this, I speculate, causes a great deal of discomfort and misplaced emotions. Take a minute to recall some instances when you felt frustration while interacting with a representative of some inept organization, and you’ll get an idea of what I mean.
What is the upshot of all this? If I am on to something here, then we should recognize that it is part of the (post)modern condition that we do not have emotional capacities which fit entirely well with many of the social and moral problems we face. There will be great temptation to direct apt emotions at inapt targets, and a great dissatisfaction when we cannot. I suspect that one of the reasons it is so collectively cathartic to skewer a public figure who has done something wrong, especially when that wrong embodies broader social trends, is that our moral emotions finally have full purchase. But in frustrating situations like our student’s DMV visit where they do not, we must somehow come to grips with the fact that catharsis is unavailable. And we must find a way to navigate these situations without relying unrestrainedly on emotions which, in other social contexts, serve us well.
 These are examples of what the philosopher Peter Strawson called ‘reactive attitudes’. Strawson, “Freedom and Resentment” in Freedom and Resentment and Other Essays, pp. 1-28 (2008).
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University of California, Santa Barbara