Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Revisiting the Mitzvah of Not Embarrassing People

It's raining in Northern California, and that means driving in the rain with Californians. This is ugly. And it made me reflect on Monday's post. I said that I put a lot of emphasis on avoiding embarrassment. However, I realized that I have an area of my life where I actually WANT to embarrass people. Where does that leave me halachicly??

This comes as a surprise to many people, but I am an unapologetic car horn honker.

A month in Egypt apparently converted me to the powers of the car horn. But seriously, there is no more effective way to communicate with other drivers. My very first car didn't have a functioning horn for the first couple of weeks. Sure enough, someone tried to merge into me, and I couldn't do anything about it! (Something about me attracts unsafe merging.)

I (generally) don't honk out of anger. However, one of my primary purposes in honking is to publicly shame other drivers. I like to call it "positive peer pressure." In other words, "You've done something unacceptable, you should know that was unacceptable, and I saw you. Feel shaaaame."

Now let's consider the "logical" process I worked through as I continued to drive (no honking was necessary, actually):

  • Honking is probably embarrassing someone, which would probably violate that mitzvah.
  • But maybe this is pikuach nefesh (saving a life).
  • Bad drivers are certainly a threat to my life and the lives of others. By pointing out their dangerous actions, hopefully they'll avoid doing it in the future, thus maybe saving a life in a future that never happens. (Yay sci-fi and theoretical physics! Questionable halachic argument?)
  • But sometimes I honk at them for something that's only stupid or careless, not dangerous.
  • Even stupid actions can place people in danger because that's a huge hunk of metal traveling at a high rate of speed compared to a pedestrian or smaller car. Even not paying enough attention can be dangerous. Maybe I've woken them back up from whatever stupor they were in.
  • Even something as stupid as when I honk at them for not going fast enough when the light turns green?
  • Yes. I will totally justify it with the stupor argument. Obviously they weren't paying enough attention.
  • But just in case, maybe it qualifies as a rebuke?
  • Is the other driver receptive to my rebuke? I don't know. That's a good question. How could I ever possibly know that?

And...scene. I hit the brick wall of an unknowable fact.

If it's any consolation, I take what I dish out. I'm pretty absent-minded, even when driving. And I do feel shamed when someone honks at me when I know I've done something stupid.

Thoughts? Welcome to my brain, this is what it's always like. And from what I understand, I'd fit in perfectly in Israeli driving culture. With the honking, at least. I'm a very non-aggressive driver otherwise. I even drive the speed limit. That's a mitzvah too, ya know :P


  1. hello, lurker coming out of the shadows here :)

    i don't know if you can base your thought process on "maybes" about things you can't know (i.e. whether they were being absent-minded, just careless, etc while driving). for example, you wouldn't drive to the ER on shabbos because you got a paper cut, because maybe some bacteria got in there and it might be infected and you might die. (ok, silly example, but i hope you understand what i mean...)

    it might be a cultural thing though: where i'm from, honking is super rude. noone ever does it unless they mean a non-verbal "f*ck you" or, well, as an accident is happening. so unless someone is *this close* to crashing into you (that means you basically feel like it's happened already) i wouldn't honk - actually if an accident is happening one brakes first and *then*, if everything is ok, they honk (stress relief?!)! really the last resort :)

    i don't know if i'd count honking as embarrassing people (the other cars around you might not figure out what's wrong and *you* might be the one they see as silly!), but i think it's generally rude and should be avoided.

  2. I would only honk as a warning if someone is driving erratically or breaking a rule of the road. Otherwise, the honk could distract other drivers for no good reason and maybe put someone else in danger.

  3. I have no answers, but I LOVE this post. No seriously, I lov eit b/c it's funny yes (indeed it is!) but also because I think so many of us can relate.

    not embarrassing people (or shaming them which is probably a better word) is clearly more in depth than just not making fun of someone to their face.

  4. Hahahaha...Cairo is the honking capital of the world according to that article! No wonder I was indoctrinated :)

    Very interesting responses. I didn't expect this much to be said! If it's any consolation, I honk once or twice a month, and it's almost always for serious safety issues. As I said, people really like to merge into me. My car is small, but it's bright red. I don't understand why no one sees it! I'm also very careful to not "lay on the horn." A quick toot serves my purposes :)

    But the more interesting question: halachicly, does my intent matter?

  5. Honking once or twice a month, in California anyway, is a lot! I honk less than once a year, because I only do it if I think doing so will avert an accident. Or maybe if someone is stopped and hasn't noticed the light has turned green for a long time.

    It's a bad idea to honk unless you need to do so. When I hear a honk nearby, it startles me, and I look around to see what's going on. I might even tap the brakes. This takes my eyes and my mind off of what is right in front of me, and that can be dangerous.