Tarred with the same brush - bloody cyclists!

Tarred with the same brush – bloody cyclists!


Everyone, and I mean everyone, is familiar with the battle-cry of the oppressed – “you cyclists!”

Those bloody cyclists. They are in the news with ever-increasing consistency, and, at least in Australia, what the popular media tends to peddle (sorry) is not only controversial, but negative. Just enough of the cyclists perspective to rile the haters, and more than enough of the threat they pose to the general public, the good citizens, the rate-payers, motorists, pedestrians, business owners, and residents, to keep the fires stoked.

Those bloody cyclists.

While non-cyclists are often blamed for generalizing about cyclists, this article by Cycle.org.au has discussed the very real tendency of cyclists to generalize against themselves.

You know, when, as a cyclist, you see another scoff-law cyclist doing something not only illegal, but stupid and irresponsible, and cringe because you know that everyone who saw that cyclist do that thing will be thinking, “those bloody cyclists”.

Because there is such a spotlight on cycling and the “war on the roads” is not showing any signs of slowing down, those who are invested in cycling in some way feel acutely aware of the attitude that some portion of the population has against cyclists and how that is fueled by every single cyclist who does anything at all wrong.

This emotionally charged social division of tribes, thoes cyclists, and those motorists, revels in this grouping together of anyone who can be wedged into the category of the other group (the out-group), just like any other group of people who share a commonality on some level. This commonality is oftentimes quite superficial, like one’s chosen mode of transportation, but often enough it can be wrapped up in who they are as a person, be it gender, race, religion, or sexual orientation.

For anyone who takes issue with whatever they are offended by, the members of the offending group are all tarred with the same brush. With big, broad strokes.

Now, the article from Cycle.org.au flips the issue and looks at the self-deprecating cyclist. The ones who get defensive about how the actions of other cyclists negatively affects their own image in the eyes of the general public. The ones who feel the burden of silly cyclists everywhere. Those who try to police those that they feel represent them.

The conclusion of the article is indeed a reasonable one: who cares what others think, and anyway, they are them, and I am me. They do not represent me. I will not allow myself to be tarred with the same brush.

Don’t perpetuate the lie, shut it down. If you ride with in the law, just say that. Stand up and say –

“This rider does not represent me.”

It also raises an interesting point in so far as, generally, most of us actually do our best not to generalize, at least, when it’s obvious. Most of us aren’t racist, or bigots, or sexist (much), but are nevertheless quite happy to defend ourselves against the actions of offending cyclists because we don’t want to be tarred and feathered along with them.

So how come they don’t think we are all speeding drivers that jump red lights? In research conducted by Monash University and in documentaion from the AAMI index of 2009 – 5% of motorists run red lights and a massive 25% of drivers were booked for speeding. So – does that make all drivers red-light running speedsters? One would hope not, but yet we are left with the burning desire to accept blame for every rider that breaks the law. Why?

I’d suggest that the percentage of people who actually subscribe to the belief that all cyclists are the same parasitic scoff-laws is no greater than the percentage of people who actually think that all drivers are red-light running speedsters, or that all Muslims are terrorists, which (I hope) would be, in reality, pretty small. It’s just that they’re loud. Obnoxiously loud. And persistent. And ignorant. And that it’s an easy story for the media to use for a bit of cheap click-bait.

But the question that interests me is why is it so compelling? Why, as a cyclist who is conscious of the tenuous relationship between cyclists and everyone else, is it so frustrating to see another cyclist who is being stupid, at least as far as our own personal definition goes, and more than that – why is it to easy to then think, “you’re ruining it for us all!”?

I think that as a situation involving a group of people that you are a member of becomes more heated, more strained, and more visible in the public eye, it makes people in that group, and those who have opinions about those people, more opinionated and more conscious of the behaviour of that/their group. That’s pretty normal. I’m not saying that it’s right or wrong, but I don’t think that it’s an outrageous statement to make. It’s just how it is.

I’d also suggest that the easier it is to identify a member of a group is, the easier it is for others to isolate them and assign blame to them. The old man slowly riding his 40-year-old bike down the street is the target of precisely no one, while the Lycra-clad, white male (the dreaded MAMIL), or depending on where you are, the skinny-jeaned, tattooed guy on a fixie, is everyone’s favourite target. They are different, so we feel more comfortable lumping them into a generic mass of them and pointing our fingers.

The fact that motoring bodies aren’t “apologizing for cars running red lights” while cycling bodies are chastising cyclists for misbehaving is somewhat interesting.

However, I’d have to say that while motoring bodies aren’t exactly calling out drivers in general as being irresponsible, there is no shortage of campaigns from the government and insurance bodies and others about distracted driving, speeding, driving under the influence, and many of the problems commonly associated with driving. Some of the campaigns have been quite serious, and have been reasonably aggressive in their approach.

Is this a different situation to cycling bodies encouraging cyclists to obey the law, and to use the roads in a responsible manner? I don’t think so. Correct me if I’m wrong.

So with organized, corporate self-criticism being fairly common for motorists and cyclists alike, what about individuals attitudes towards the behaviour of others in our peer groups? Should we be concerned with the effect reckless members of our group have on how others see us and potentially treat us? Should we get upset and chastise others for “making us all look bad”?

Obviously there isn’t an answer for that. Some people won’t care, others will, and everyone will have their own reasons. If I had to say yes or no, I’d be tempted to say no, even though I do get a bit riled up when I see someone behaving (what I feel is) irresponsibly on a bike.

I don’t know about you, but I suspect that most people who are offended at the actions of others don’t specifically limit their derision towards only one particular type of culprit.

If a particular brand of stupid annoys or offends you, it won’t matter who it comes from, but if it comes from someone who you identify yourself with, it is entirely natural to become a little more frustrated with that person than you would from someone else.

I get upset at cyclists who do the wrong thing, but I also get upset at drivers, errant pedestrians, or people in any other context that are doing something I deem to be unreasonable. Obviously I’m not perfect, and like most people, that makes me a bit of a hypocrite. Like most people, if I encounter something I don’t agree with, I react to it, whether that is internally or actively communicated in some way.

People may attack what they don’t understand, but they can also attack things they do understand if they potentially have something to loose, even if that is merely loosing or being assigned a perceived image in the eyes of the public.

Because the media pushes the controversy between cyclists and motorists to its bursting point, combined with the fact that it’s just plain fact that human beings will generalize in order to make sense of the world and their place in it, I don’t find it strange at all that cyclists get upset over witnessing another cyclists do something stupid in plain view of those who will form an opinion of us and can contribute to the ongoing saga of “those bloody cyclists!”

I don’t think that we need to be responsible for other people’s actions, but conversely, I think we do have a responsibility to be good ambassadors, and most of us would actually agree with this on some level.

(There is a whole line of thought that associates a cyclists good behaviour with a motorists decision to respect their safety on the road, and that has nothing to do with this discussion. That is most certainly not something I agree with.)

If you are employed by someone, you understand that you have to uphold the good image of that business or brand. On a larger scale, we try to live in a way that represents humanity is a decent light. Basically, anything that you feel a part of or tied to in some way, you want to be associated with that in a positive manner.

If you don’t care, you don’t care. People who use a bike in a completely unemotional and detached sense merely for the purpose of getting somewhere probably don’t care about what someone’s opinion about cycling and cyclists are. Probably because they don’t consider themselves to be a cyclist.

People who want to be bad-asses won’t care either way. Gangs don’t have an image problem as far as they are concerned. Cyclists or motorists who have no regard for anyone else won’t care either.

For everyone else, if you are on some level invested in something, then you will have an opinion on the behaviour of those involved. If what you are interested in is cycling and cycling gets whipped up into a heated battle between good and evil that the media uses (and abuses) to sell advertising, putting cyclist behavior in the minds of the general public, and, that this can have even a tiny effect on your personal safety and/or well-being in an already vulnerable position while cycling on the roads, then it is not unreasonable to have an opinion on the behaviour of cyclists that plays directly into this negative stereotyping (redundant, I know) of cyclists – of you, basically.

So, while I agree with Cycling.org.au that you should not feel the need to take responsibility for another idiot’s actions, and agree that the response to “you’re all the same” should be “that’s not me” (if it isn’t), the simple fact is that it does matter. The actions of other idiot’s do have an effect, and that effect can come back on you in some capacity, at some time, and that’s frustrating, because it’s rarely deserved and can play at least a small part in keeping cycling marginalized in the eyes of many.

Clearly it would be absurd and totally unrealistic to call for every cyclist to behave in a legally upright, considerate, and responsible manner, and the notion that cyclists need to earn the respect of motorists in order to be considered welcome on the roads is reprehensible.

With that said…

Don’t be a wanker. You bloody cyclists…


Header image: The Sticky Bidon