Cyclists, Inflammatory Journalism and Post-Prejudice Societies

The Cyclists' Creed

 

Once a profession, Journalism has become a breeding ground for narrow-minded intolerance and personal bias conveyed in the guise of impartial observation. For example, journalists who launch into screeds against bicyclists present themselves as morally superior to those they malign, yet they see nothing immoral about endangering an entire class of people.

Not long ago, P.J. O’Rourke wrote an inflammatory piece in the Wall Street Journal where he portrayed cyclists as a menace who should “go play in traffic.” In response, I wrote a less vitriolic piece satirically urging motorists to “go play on the train tracks.”

O’Rourke ridiculed cyclists with the following characterizations:

 

“And it’s impossible to feel like a grown-up when you’re on a bicycle if you aren’t in the Tour de France.”

“Wearing bicycle shorts in public is more embarrassing than wearing Depends.”

“Exchanging briefcases for backpacks takes us from the boardroom to the schoolyard.”

“And it’s hard to keep a straight face when talking to anyone in a Skittles-colored, Wiffle ball-slotted bike helmet that makes you look like Woody Woodpecker.”

“Bike lanes violate a fundamental principle of democracy. We, the majority who do not ride bicycles, are being forced to sacrifice our left turns, parking places and chances to squeeze by delivery trucks so that an affluent elite can feel good about itself for getting wet, cold, tired and run-over. Our tax dollars are being used to subsidize our annoyance.”

 

O’Rourke’s jibes portray cyclists as childish and ludicrous. Creating gross caricatures of entire groups of people is frowned upon in American society. Why, then, is singling out cyclists for this sort of treatment accepted by the public?

Not long after O’Rourke’s diatribe created discord between cyclists and drivers, Brian McGrory published a scathing article in The Boston Globe demanding that bicyclists be banned from Boston. After several passes through his poorly written article, it was difficult to determine, with any certainty, whether it was meant as satire or whether the author was failing to cleverly take a stance against cycling in Boston. Either way, the article generated over 500 comments – filled with anger and resentment from motorists and cyclists – and widened the divide between two groups who, by law, are required to share the road.

McGrory hurled one insult after another, stereotyping all cyclists as arrogant, entitlement-minded, scofflaws:

 

“But to paraphrase the National Rifle Association, bikes are not the problem, it’s the people on them … those people [cyclists] are the scourge of the city”

“Throw in a bunch of cavalier cyclists who believe with every cell of their beings that they own the road, and it’s near impossible to get around. That superiority leads them to blast through red lights and stop signs with no hesitation, swerve into traffic with the entitled expectation that everyone else will screech to a halt, glide the wrong way down streets, across sidewalks, through pedestrian malls, constantly yelling, ‘Watch it, dude!'”

“They are a self-celebratory lot, these cyclists, parading around in Lycra even though most of them inexplicably have shapes that beg for L.L. Bean, proselytizing through ham-handed bike commuter days, gathering at their little festivals to talk about how they’re saving the world. Shame on us for buying into their act.”

 

As in all forms of bigotry, McGrory attributes attitudes and beliefs to people he does not like, with the sole intent of targeting them for discrimination.

This sort of inflammatory journalism has become all too common. To increase publication sales or page views, journalists have thrown ethics to the wind and now resort to dashing off whatever incendiary words they can think of.

There’s just one problem with this practice: it is not a victimless offence.

Every time an article, like the ones mentioned above, reaches a wide audience, every cyclist on the road finds him or herself in greater danger.

Both O’Rourke and McGrory positioned themselves as beyond reproach – by placing themselves in the majority class of “drivers” – while judging a minority class “cyclists” to be inferior, and therefore justifying discrimination against them.

If the class of people they were writing about was African Americans, rather than cyclists, there would be an outcry. Whether talking about a racial minority or a cycling minority, judging all by the actions of a few is discriminatory. Such judgments are visceral, not logical.

Why do the authors of these inflammatory articles not recognize discrimination in one form, even if they would in another? What it comes down to is that, in American society, hatred is condoned in some forms and excoriated in others.

Will this ever change?

The 2008 Presidential campaign brought forth discussion about creating a post-racial society in America. The impetus for this discussion was the presence of the first viable African American Presidential candidate. By electing an African American president, the reasoning went, we would usher in a new era whereby race would be neither an obstacle nor an advantage.

In this context, anyone who criticized candidate Obama (the African American candidate), in a way that was perceived as unfair, was met with cries of “racist.” In this case, supporters were generalizing from the individual to the whole. To them, one man represented an entire race and an affront to him was an affront to all. And, the affront was acknowledged as an injustice because discrimination in the form of racism is generally believed to be wrong.

In a similar vein, as soon as the first seeds of cycling infrastructure were sown in the transportation landscape, road travel was no longer the exclusive domain of one type of vehicle. Choosing alternative modes of transportation would, theoretically, no longer bear any stigma or impede one’s ability to freely come and go.

In this context, anyone who criticized cyclists for using the roads was met with silence; and anyone who protested the criticism was met with a barrage of insults towards cyclists. For in the case of cyclists, neither an affront to one nor an affront to all yields cries of discrimination because, in this case, discrimination is condoned.

Damage caused by racism, sexism, and ageism is recognized. Yet, the damage caused by cyclistism – discrimination against people who belong to the class of “cyclists” – is unacknowledged. In fact, most people are oblivious to it.

In other forms of discrimination, members of a particular group face significant barriers in life. And, occasionally, due to preconceived notions about them, group members become targets of violence.

With respect to the practice of cyclistism, only minor barriers are placed in a cyclist’s way, but many cyclists become targets of violence.

This is not to say that one form of discrimination is better than another. All discrimination is harmful. All discrimination is wrong. And one form is not more or less wrong than another.

However, cyclistism, unlike more subtle forms of discrimination, bears deadly consequences. Such endangerment of life and limb is why the practice of inflammatory journalism – publishing words designed to incite violence against a group of people – must stop.

Law abiding cyclists have grown weary of people asserting their right not only to vilify cyclists, but to suggest and condone maiming or killing them on the pretext that their own behavior justifies their mistreatment.

No group ever brings discrimination upon itself. No discrimination ever ends without a vision.

Cyclists must not stand idly by. They must summon the courage to speak out loudly and must have the heart to dream of a better world.

In the face of unbearable oppression, the famed civil rights activist, Martin Luther King, Jr., expressed a bold and controversial dream:

 

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal’…I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

 

Like Martin Luther King, Jr., I also have a dream:

I long for the day when cyclists will not be judged by stereotypes and prejudice, but by individual actions and character. I envision a world where being in a minority does not result in condemnation.

I have a dream that one day, those in the realm of mass media will not use the power of words to incite hatred towards and violence against others; that focus on personal interests will not engender intolerance; and that all citizens, young or old, rich or poor, from all persuasions and all walks of life, will come together, united under one nation in post-prejudice harmony. I have a dream…

 

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4 Responses to Cyclists, Inflammatory Journalism and Post-Prejudice Societies

  1. Rebecca says:

    Imagine if you were to mention to someone who did not drive that you drove a car and their response was “those car ‘driverists’, they are so dangerous; they continue to go through the light after it has turned red! They speed up to get through a yellow light! They all go faster than the posted speed limit! They all are talking on their cell phones or even worse texting! They have their music so loud they can’t hear anything! They hit you with their 2000 ponds of steel and kill you! “And even though you aren’t necessarily like that you the car driver are painted by the same broad stroke!
    Back in the 1910’s & 1920’s when the streets still belonged to everyone car drivers were condemned as killers of people and especially children. Well, with big moneyed interests behind them they managed to change the narrative so everyone was responsible for their own safety rather than the car driver taking all the blame, jaywalking laws were created and around 1927 streets became the domain of motor vehicles. I have been reading about this in a book called “Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City” by Peter Norton. Motor vehicles do not want to give up an inch of their streets and I think no matter how polite a bicyclist may be it is not going to make an iota of difference. “Responsible” cyclists think bad cyclists or critical mass just negates their good efforts. Judging by what I read & hear all cyclists are considered a danger and a nuisance on the roads.
    In the Netherlands bicyclists are given very wide bike lanes in which faster cyclists can easily pass slower cyclists,and bike lanes that avoid conflict with cars at intersections. Their bike lanes connect, take you on direct routes in the cities & take you from city to city. One reason they don’t have the problems that we have with cars & pedestrians is because everyone has their own infrastructure that works well for them.
    What we have been given in Boston are bike lanes that are one bicycle-width wide and even with the few cyclists out there, are frequently at capacity, and fall within the door zone (3 ft width for an open door on a 4-door car plus 12” for one side of bike handlebars, plus 1 ft extra to avoid swerving should a door open- all of which comes to 5-feet clearance needed to be safe from open car doors). Until we have infrastructure that feels safe to traffic-intolerant bike riders, bicycling will be for young adults and assertive older cyclists. And I don’t see that happening until some political courage is shown and traffic lanes on multi-laned streets or parking lanes are removed and replaced with bike lanes that feel safer to those bicyclers.
    Good post, by the way.

    • “Well, with big moneyed interests behind them they managed to change the narrative so everyone was responsible for their own safety rather than the car driver taking all the blame, jaywalking laws were created and around 1927 streets became the domain of motor vehicles. I have been reading about this in a book called “Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City” by Peter Norton. Motor vehicles do not want to give up an inch of their streets and I think no matter how polite a bicyclist may be it is not going to make an iota of difference.”

      Monetary influence can certainly distort things from the way they ought to be to what is to someone’s advantage. Drivers are the only road users who have the potential to kill. When cyclists disobey traffic laws, they are risking their own lives, not the lives of others. Too often, cyclists are blamed for accidents because, in a car-centric society, a driver’s license is regarded as a license to kill.

      Peter Norton is right about drivers not wanting to give up an inch of their streets. By having exclusive use of the roads, they are relieved from the responsibility of having to pay attention, drive carefully, and obey the traffic laws. Free-for-all driving is ingrained in the American psyche and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

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