Thursday, June 21, 2007

Cultural Dominance...

I've been working on a long piece about cultural dominance, highlighting the role of motor vehicles and their drivers as the dominant force on our public roadways. Cyclists have a part in this, since we're undeniably effected by the dominant culture. Extreme examples of the effects would include Bruno Bettelhiem's observations of prisoner behavior in WW2 concentration camps and the Stockholm syndrome, though in the case of road cyclists, this is more a question of degree rather than type.

Kathleen Trigiani wrote:

Virtually anyone can get Stockholm Syndrome it the following conditions are met:

* Perceived threat to survival and the belief that one's captor is willing to act on that threat
* The captive's perception of small kindnesses from the captor within a context of terror
* Isolation from perspectives other than those of the captor
* Perceived inability to escape.

Stockholm Syndrome is a survival mechanism. The men and women who get it are not lunatics.
They are fighting for their lives. They deserve compassion, not ridicule.

Cyclists are familiar with those tiresome arguments that they shouldn't be on the public roads because they can't travel as fast as cars; they're too vulnerable; they don't pay road taxes; they don't obey the law, etc. We can refute them one by one, but by next week they'll pop up again like mushrooms after a spring rain. The motorists who make these arguments almost always preface them with: “I ride a bicycle but...” What follows will invariably be some insistence that we shouldn't be permitted to ride XYZ road for myriad reasons.

But it's not my intent to focus on motorists here. Instead, I want to touch on the effects of the dominant motoring culture on cyclists themselves, and how that culture influences their behavior and causes such divisiveness in a group that should have common goals and common efforts. John Forester summed it up by saying:

The bicycle advocates direct particular fury at those who defend lawful, competent cycling. Only these vehicular cyclists have sufficient knowledge of cycling to present accurate and ethical opposition to the bicycle plans of the anti-motoring bicycle advocates, and the bicycle advocates regard them as traitors.

In essence then, the gulf that separates 'bicycle advocates' from vehicular cyclists is the former's acquiescence to the dominance of car culture and the tacit acceptance of that culture's values. I've met some experienced, educated cyclists who espoused the idea that motorists and cyclists alike have an equal right to use the public way, yet their behavior showed that they didn't really believe that. When a cyclist says, “You can't ride there because there aren't any bike lanes” or “It's too dangerous to ride XYZ road” he's exhibiting the impact of the dominant culture. their fruits ye shall know them...Matthew 7:20

As a piece of general fatherly advice, I've told my son, “Don't pay too much attention to what people say. Watch what they do.” In the case of bicycling advocates, it's just as instructive to watch how they ride and where.

Dominant car culture says that cyclists are in the way, too slow, or a danger to themselves and others. And in fact, some cyclists view themselves in the same light. They feel intimidated, threatened with bodily harm, and they believe they're unable to escape – all the precepts of the Stockholm syndrome. It's bad when some motorist launches a bigoted diatribe, but it's worse when a cyclist buys into it too. My friend Gary says we have a responsibility to oppose hate speech when we encounter it. I think we have an equal responsibility to speak up when confronted with ideas based on conjecture, ignorance, or misinformation. But as Trigiani says, these people need to be met with compassion, not ridicule.

But if it's ridicule you want, you'll have to go read CycleDog.


  1. Da Pope has few words on communion with the road.

  2. I like your distinction between bike advocates and vehicular cyclists. Here in the City of Big Shoulders our local bike advocacy org, the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation, is composed overwhelmingly of the former. Two reasons for this are 1) the switch in emphasis from bike touring (w/relatively cheap bikes)to bike racing (w/high end expensive bikes) in the mid80s and 2) the increasing compartmentalization of American life where every activity and group is assigned its own zone.

  3. The same argument can be applied equally to vehicular cyclists who argue that bicycle riders should follow laws written to benefit motor vehicles rather than ignoring them when they are stupid & dangerous.