Stereotyping is the primary method of expressing bias in a recognizable way. To some extent, everyone uses stereotypes, but not always consciously. Societal level stereotypes are ingrained in our thinking through cultural conditioning or repetitive mass media messages.
More often than not, minority groups become the target of untrue and unfair stereotyping. These unflattering stereotypes can be the product of fear, hatred or resentment. And, they can cause real harm, primarily by inciting people to act out against the negatively stereotyped group. Ultimately, negative stereotyping grants one permission to hate and to unleash hatred on a member of a group who is perceived as either inferior or unacceptable to the majority.
Cyclists fall into this category. Negative stereotypes of them abound. Drivers who don’t want cyclists on the road refer to them as scofflaws, as entitlement brats, and worse. They see cyclists as all things evil because they are in the way, and because they represent change, which can be difficult to accept.
To support the negative cyclist stereotypes, drivers and bicycle-hating pedestrians always provide examples of how horrible cyclists are. Anecdotes are presented to anyone who will listen, typically in a colorful fashion and full of venom. Exaggeration is the norm.
All stereotypes require exaggeration; it is a key element of this concept. For if a thing was presented as an objective fact, it could neither express bias nor hatred, or any form of phobia. It would be the thing in and for itself.
Another key principle of stereotyping is blindness to the truth. By ignoring facts, others can be made out to have traits they do not possess. Dehumanization and objectification is part of the process. This is what cyclists face, out on the roads, every day.
As anyone who rides a bike can attest, most anti-cyclists use a red light running stereotype as proof of all of the negative things they believe about cyclists. To hear them talk, one would think that no cyclist has ever stopped at a red light — or obeyed any other traffic law, for that matter.
The red light has become a symbol of everything that’s wrong with cyclists. It speaks volumes about their character. It demonstrates why they don’t belong on the road. It explains why they should be forced to carry a license and why they should be penalized for daring to use the roads for transportation.
It’s rare to hear an anti-cyclist discuss bicycles on the roads without hearing the familiar meme about how all cyclists run red lights. Accordingly the story goes: cyclists fly through intersections, against the red light, like bats out of hell. They have no self control or concern for the welfare of others. Reeking havoc on the road is their primary and only goal. With a sense of entitlement, these imaginary cyclists scoff at the laws, while the drivers who sit behind the wheels of careening cars, not wanting to brake for something moving slowly in their path, curse loudly out half-open windows.
Part of successfully relaying such stories depends upon the receptivity and agreement of the audience. A willing participant in the teller’s strong emotion lends the story credence and makes listeners feel more certain of the veracity of the teller’s claims. In this manner, a bond between teller and listener is formed, whereby an untested hypothesis is accepted as fact.
Acceptance of untested facts, based on hearsay, is what makes people blind to the truth. Most people who believe that cyclists never stop at red lights will never see any who do. Permanent blindness to the truth will afflict them and prevent them from seeing anything they do not want to see. And, they will hone in on the actions of any cyclists who do run red lights because such actions are proof of what they already believe.
Members of the stereotyped group will see things differently, since blindness to the truth does not affect them. In the case of cyclists, many of them do stop at red lights, therefore, they will notice other cyclists stopped at red lights. Red light running cyclists will be visible to them too.
One group, which is discriminated against, sees the facts and the other group, blinded by prejudice, sees only the things which justify their beliefs. On some level, this is a reflection of human nature. Strong feelings taint perceptions; interpretations of perceptions can take on a life of their own.
Our ancestors relied on superstition to explain the world around them and to allay their fear of the unknown. In days gone by, people were not able to record life and then watch it unfold again. Living in the moment was the rule. And when the moment passed, so did whatever had transpired. Nothing more than a memory was left, a fleeting fancy of the mind.
People could never be sure what they had witnessed. Experiences were the product of mental images; they were internal. But then something happened. Humans invented ways to capture moments in time in a manner which allowed them to be reviewed indefinitely.
Such an advance, one might think, would make stereotyping obsolete. If actions could be recorded and watched again, why would anyone choose to believe what was not there? Could this habit be an ancient artifact that, for some, cannot be overcome?
Unfortunately, as long as even one cyclist runs a red light in full view of the driving public, all cyclists will be branded. Drivers, who frequently run red lights themselves, cannot see themselves as they are. Being blinded to others is not the drivers’ only fault, just as cyclists are sometimes blinded to their own behavior and how it affects others on the road.
Can anything be done to stop negative stereotyping? Possibly. Recording reality is one way to change perceptions — or at least to negate invalid accusations. Cyclists, like other minority groups, must avail themselves of whatever technology is available to capture the facts.
Speaking of facts… watch the video below and then contemplate the following: Cyclists never stop at red lights: Fact or Fiction?