Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Thinking out loud: Are cyclists the new weather?

You find yourself standing next to a stranger, perhaps in a pub or a Post Office queue whilst waiting an unbelievable time for a simple stamp. You decide to strike up a conversation with this person to pass the time. But what do you talk about? The list of topics one can raise with a stranger is quite slim. You can hardly start out with "Isn't the current Prime Minister an incompetent buffoon?" as you risk upsetting their political sensitivities. Sport is also risky - they might support a team you do not. So what's safe? What can you be sure they'll not get offended by? Two topics that never fail are weather and traffic.

"Traffic's bad today, isn't it?" is as safe a conversation opener as you can find. The traffic might be light, but don't worry: this won't go challenged. What else is a safe opening line with a stranger? How about "It's hard to find a parking space, isn't it?" or "Cyclists are a nuisance aren't they? Always riding through red lights and on pavements?" Nod nod nod. Safe. Nobody's going to be offended here. We all agree, just as we all agree that winters aren't what they used to be.

These statements about cyclists, of course, raise the hackles of cyclists a great deal. One only needs to look at yesterday's drama about a survey of red-light jumping behaviour and how it was reported. The old saw about cyclists and red lights is one of a family of statements that are so often repeated I recently suggested somebody should make a bullshit bingo card: red lights, pavements, no tax, no insurance, license plates, helmets, lycra...

And this got me thinking. Yes, these statements are repeated an AWFUL lot, aren't they? I've been hearing them regularly for at least 8 years. They crop up in the comments on almost every article about cycling that gets published online (they'll appear below this, no doubt). Yes, they recur suspiciously often. Hmm...

The thing is, what should we take from these statements? Should we take them as evidence for endemic anti-cyclist feeling? I'm starting to doubt that. It's the fact these statements are repeated SO OFTEN and practically verbatim from a hundred thousand different mouths and keyboards that got me thinking. Because they appear almost as a reflex, and because so many people who don't know one another repeat exactly the same phrases, I suspect that these aren't true opinions; I reckon they are merely memes. They are cultural conventions that have grown up over the past years.

I'd like therefore tentatively to suggest that all these statements such as "Cyclists? They all ride through red lights, don't they?" are fundamentally NOT ABOUT CYCLISTS and should not really be taken as such. I believe they are really a set of social conventions that serve the same role as conversations about the weather: They allow a socially acceptable and safe way to find common ground with strangers. They are (in many people's minds) as uncontroversial as statements about how gravity still seems to be working fine, or how politicians can't really be trusted. They are not intended to challenge or provoke; they are intended to provide comfort through the repetition of a familiar and long-standing ritual, not unlike a religious service.

So perhaps we should not make the mistake of thinking that such statements are the product of considered thought, or really represent people's true opinions. People have not looked into these matters deeply enough to really have deep-seated opinions. If people really studied the weather and climate data they'd stop saying that winters aren't what they used to be. If they studied the traffic behaviour and accident data, they'd stop pointing fingers at cyclists.

Because these beliefs aren't really being examined in depth, people take evidence as it comes rather than going and looking for it, and when this happens one usually sees confirmation bias: the tendency to pay attention to information that confirms what we already believe and ignore information that challenges it. So a person doesn't really notice 25 cyclists stopping at a red light and 50 riding on the road, but spots the one who cuts the light and the one who rides on the pavement because these are what they expect to see.

Of course, the notion that a subgroup of society is a menace could not have taken hold were that subgroup not relatively small and perceived as outsiders. The context in which these social norms arose is fascinating and something I've also thought about, but would be a digression here. The main point I want to explore is that perhaps these statements we see so often are merely conventions that are repeated as part of the social glue that holds society together, and do not necessarily reflect people's true opinions about cyclists.

At first glance, the idea that these incorrect views about cyclists are not deeply examined convictions might suggest they will be easy to change. But if I'm correct in what I'm thinking here, we'd have to suggest the opposite: these views will be difficult to change - they came to hold the position they do in our society because they seemed so self-evident and obvious. Perhaps to challenge the idea that cyclists are all law-breakers is like challenging the idea that winters aren't what they used to be.


Rob Ainsley said...

Indeed, though it all depends on the otherness of cyclists - the fact that 98 per cent of the people you meet in the Post Office queue do not use bikes as their main mode of transport.

Just over a decade ago, complaining about people who use their mobile phones on trains was a similarly routine complaint. It's still annoying when people do, but it's not commented on nearly so much by paid-by-the-yard columnists. And that's because everyone has a mobile phone now, and everyone at some time has had to take a call on the train.

So, until we have Dutch levels of cycling, we'll be stuck with the anti-cyclist tropes.

Can someone nip over to Groningen and find out what people talk about in post office queues there?

katsdekker said...

Agree. And just exactly because these comments aren’t considered opinion I consider playing bullcrap bingo so inherently dangerous.

People have brains. Or maybe that's another meme and we really are dealing with brainwashed zombies.

Better start watching some B movies to counteract the attack.

WestfieldWanderer said...

Shows the truth behind something Josef Goebbels never said but is almost universally regarded as true because lots of people have said he did: "Repeat a lie often enough it becomes the truth."

Dr Peter Matthews said...

Absolutely spot-on. Couldn't agree more. As I mentioned on Twitter, sounds like you've been reading the likes of Norman Fairclough.

The other thing this language does is "other" cyclists and make people want to say "I'm not a cyclist because I don't do those things that this discourse calls cycling". I resisted becoming lycra clad for years because of this.

Discourse theory suggests we need to challenge and change this discourse by reframing the issue and normalising it. I was impressed by the "Stop the Murder" campaign in the Netherlands and this, seemingly, managed to do this:

We also need to reframe the issue to make it personal, and move away from the "othering". One way I think we could do this is point out "that cyclist is someone's daughter/son" to make people recognise, personally, the unpleasant environment cyclists for cyclists in this country and do something about it.

Anonymous said...

Fine post and probably correct - but worry that it points to a sort of complacent acceptance.

These things do change - as a child I remember a world where racism and homphobia were acceptable in everyday conversation. Changes in the law, greater visibility but particularly active and constant challenge of attitudes and beliefs have shifted these views so that they are now largely unnaceptable in public life.

It is important that street level chatter is actively challenged - not simply to elevate the level of public debate, but because this kind of lazily anticyclist discourse is part of the machine which drives policy and investment and in the end informs laws and shapes public acceptance and aspiration. So it's bigger than the standard social awkwardness in the post office queue - has its own ripple effect. Its a bother, but it does need to be challenged. (and happily there are lots of us doing this nowadays)

VC said...

Cyclists are an out-group, especially to motorist. So any misdemeanor by a cyclists is seen by the in-group as endemic among the entire out-group.

In addition offences are exaggerated during discussions with the in-group.

So over the years the red light jumping, riding on pavements, waving in and out of traffic is accepted as fact.

What's worse, is that the in-group will ignore and accept any bad driver by themselves towards the out group.

There are plenty of studies on this, here's one:

Richard Evans said...

I think you may well be right, bit I also posit another theory: the people who repeat these phrases - cyclists pay no road tax, jump red lights, ride on pavements etc. - are jealous of us, in denial of the fact that they too would actually love to be cycling but too scared to do it yet because it is still largely seen as the activity of a small and odd minority, and most people care what others think of them. They are jealous because cycling is cheap, keeps us fit and good-looking, is fast, saves us gym fees, and above all is usually fun. Whereas motoring is generally none of these things and the car advert they swallowed hook line and sinker was actually terribly misleading - where is that empty alpine road on my way to work today?