The man in the brown shirt
I've realised both on internet forums and public meetings that attempting to rail against these is often about as useful as bashing one's head against the proverbial brick wall. Hence I rarely wade into such discussions at any level anymore, unless it's to kill some idle time that I have hanging around. However, I still hold the opinions, and this blog provides a place where I can display them for anyone who's interested. Consequently, I intend to write a series of articles in which I hope to "bust" a few of these myths, and I'll find a permanent place somewhere on this page for a link. I am under no illusions that this will stop people from subscribing to them, but hopefully it will give the more enlightened readers of the world something to think about.
Imagine this situation: A man wearing a brown shirt is walking down the street, he is being heckled and abused, sometimes even threatened by the occasional passer-by. Eventually he reaches his destination and enquires about the heckling. He is told that only a week previously, another man wearing a brown shirt had committed a horrible crime, and consequently given "a bad name" to anyone else who wears a brown shirt. Sound nonsensical? Now change the facts slightly. Suppose the man is riding a bicycle, and he is told that he is being abused because someone else riding a bicycle had run a red light earlier in the day. Now you have a situation that is played out on public roadways in cities and towns all over the country every single day. Or at least, we're told that it happens. Certainly the abuse and heckling of people who ride bicycles on public roads occur, but can we be so sure about the real reason for it?
I've lost count of the number of times I've heard cyclists say that "Cyclists who break the laws on the road are a problem because they give us all a bad name and make things worse for me when I ride". It's this quote that I have issues with. I'm not suggesting or condoning that anybody break the law when cycling, and I generally follow the road rules myself all of the time (not that it stops the abuse of course). However, this quote suggests that cyclists should only follow the law in order to enhance their reputation, offering no mention of following the law because it might just be the right thing to do. Consequently, it must therefore suggest that if breaking the law is going to impress a particular observer present at the time, we should follow that course of action. This is clearly absurd.
The comment is also quite condescending to the motoring public when you think about it, because it suggests that they are unable to distinguish between the cyclists who break the law and those who don't. After all, if they are able to make this distinction, they would surely save their ire for the law breakers exclusively, and those who follow the law would be spared of the heckling. Clearly this isn't the case, otherwise comments such as the above would appear a lot less frequently than they do.
Let's also consider another point: The average cyclist/motorist interaction in traffic lasts for less than three seconds (excluding time spent waiting at red lights, but then, this probably doesn't apply to the law breakers supposedly giving us a bad name). In short, if an individual cyclist is going to change someone's perception of cyclists as a group, they will generally have less than three seconds to reverse a life time of conditioning, including various prejudices gained from their upbringing. This is about as likely as an ant trying to turn around a herd of elephants, it's not going to happen. If you want proof of this, try changing your own fundamental life-long beliefs within a period of three seconds. Imagine how difficult it must be to change the beliefs of someone else in that timeframe, especially using an indirect method such as an exhibition of behaviour. Sure, over the course of a number of years it could happen if they somehow manage to exclude other influences, but not within the next three seconds.
The fact that people still seem content to draw these conclusions raises the big question: if someone you've never met before shouts abuse at you from a distance and then speeds away a second later, how do you know what their reasoning is? How do you know that they're annoyed at what another cyclist did (or whether that cyclist even exists)? For all any of us know, this person may just have a problem with cyclists which is a result of what they were taught during their upbringing. For all we know, this person might just have problems coping with their own life, and simply feels the need bully someone else in an attempt to hide the fact (and let's face it, someone who shouts abuse and then drives off really fast is nothing more than a cowardly bully).
The only real fact we have in this case is that the driver shouting the abuse in a public is guilty of behaviour that is anti-social and illegal in most places (oh the irony!). We can't say what their motivation for doing so is. Speculating on this point is futile, and to be truthful, unnecessary. Those claiming to represent the interests of cyclists who are really interested in eliminating this behaviour should be focusing on the source of the behaviour, rather than what might be a possible cause. In other words, they should be lobbying the government to apply stricter penalties for this behaviour. After all, the "reason" for the behaviour doesn't change the legality of the situation -- after all, aren't we all taught as children that two wrongs don't make a right?
A lot of cyclists seem to have been caught up in the old-fashioned "blame the victim" rubbish, which is be trotted out everytime someone from a minority group is on the receiving end of less than civil behaviour. After all, the media present it so often that even many respected cycling advocates appear to have been caught up in it. It appears to be so widespread that an immediate solution is unlikely, however, there is something that all of us can do. As cyclists we need to call situations on the basis of what we observe, not on what we're told is "logical". Stop looking for excuses for abusive motorists or anyone else who persists with this rubbish and acknowledge it for what it is -- socially unacceptable behaviour that wouldn't be tolerated if the target was anybody else. There is no reason for society to tolerate it in this instance either.