Wednesday 13 May 2015

Cycling caste? You're disgusting.

I rode up past a lorry to the ASL (advance stop line - the little red box at the front in some junctions, with a bike painted in it, to give cyclists a head start) on Gilbert Road this morning only to see that the lorry was also filling the box. So I joined the cyclist who was already in front of the ASL, and another two folk on bikes joined us there. I looked back and up at the driver to make sure that he'd seen I was indicating right, and he met my gaze with a cold, visceral look. Like he'd just put his hand in cold jelly or something - his gaze was past hostility and distaste and into pure, undisguised disgust.

The disgust response is, psychologically, a fascinating phenomenon which gives us a clear physical cue to show its happening - a curled lip, the wrinkled nose, something hard to avoid showing when you're truly disgusted. Go on, open the lid on a stinking wheelie bin on a hot day and tell me how you react - you may even feel the urge to vomit, there's a real, physical response there. Because you identify it as unclean you are disgusted by it - and this is true in social settings when talking about human beings too. The disgust response is a visceral human response and it is how social groups justify excluding outsiders - it is a fundamental part of how the caste system worked (and, sadly, sometimes still works) - its part of racism, of bigotry of nearly all kinds. That dirty things disgust us tends us to view things that disgust with unease, often as if they are dirty - this is an unavoidable association, its conventional, uncontroversial psychology. 

And this is what we're up against as cyclists. Its not about us being 'different' or just a social out group - I put it to you that in a car obsessed society, where we're judged not only by what we drive but whether we drive, by making the choice not to drive somewhere we're seen as worse than social outliers - we're seen as having a lower status, as a lower caste of people fit for derision, for hate, even as fair targets for violence. Or, at least, people you can get away with threatening.

The results of this are varied, but include the fact that the death of a cyclist isn't often treated seriously, and even paper thin excuses will be seen as credible when assessing what went wrong. That the other guy on a bike acts to dehumanise - he's different, its therefore partly his fault. 'Well if you hadn't been riding a bike it wouldn't have happened'. It is considered fair and reasonable to defend horrific hate speech against cyclists with 'but they deserve it' or 'thats just my opinion', in the same way that homophobic or racist language used to be used. Groups who 'disgust' us are seen as broadly representative of each other - they're stereotyped by bad actions of even a tiny minority - and the only difference between this being viewed as prejudice or 'just an opinion' is how widely this disgust is shared.

Look over your shoulder from the advanced stop lines. Look at the driver behind you, as you signal which way you're going try to make eye contact. Yeah, most of them don't mind, most of them pay little attention, but just look out for the odd ones who snarl, who curl their lip and sneer at you. We disgust them because, in their eyes, we are disgusting.

The answer to this isn't to sort our own lot out - it isn't us creating this problem. We could ride like saints nearly all the time and we'd still disgust them. The answer? We need to be what the politically correct movement was. We need to humanise cyclists by not accepting any attempt to do the opposite - it must become socially unacceptable to 'other' cyclists.

Where to even begin?