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Violent rhetoric and bicycles

It’s been a couple days since biking Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was wounded in a shooting that killed six people and wounded 13 in Tucson, Arizona. Since the January 8 attack, there has been a constant call for calming violent rhetoric in politics. People are particularly angry about Sarah Palin’s target map from the midterm election.

I am hesitant to believe that Sarah Palin was responsible for the shooting. Did the shooter listen to the not-so-subtle violent language so commonly tossed around and decide to act on it? I don’t know. Nobody does.

But, until we learn more about the shooter’s motives, perhaps this is a good time to talk about the way we talk. The use of violent language is nothing new, but that doesn’t mean it is not dangerous and cannot be calmed. Anyone who rides a bike knows what it’s like to have someone suggest violence as a reasonable “solution” to the “problem” of bikers. You hear it on the radio from shock jocks, you read it in papers. And comment streams on mainstream news sources? I stopped reading them a long time ago. I’ve even heard it from family members I love.

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Bike Portland wrote about this a couple days ago. Here’s how they described some of their previous battles with violent rhetoric:

As we’ve seen with many examples through the years, our traffic culture is also a place where hate is all too common. Remember back in 2006, when a Portland shock-jock said, “When I hear on TV that a cyclist has been hit and killed by a car I laugh, I think it’s funny… If you are a cyclist you should know I exist, that I don’t care about you. That I don’t care about your life.” I took those words very seriously and did everything I could to bring attention to them and hold that person and their employer accountable. Or how about the situation back in July, when a TriMet bus operator published a blog post detailing his homicidal impulses with the headline “Kill This Bicyclist!” complete with photos of the “bicyclist” in question?

When I first started riding, I was so confused by how angry some people would get at me just because I chose to ride a bicycle instead of driving. What could be so enraging about it? I’m just riding a bike. It’s probably the most peaceful way of getting around, after canoeing.

Some people have dehumanized people who ride bicycles to the point that they feel okay advocating violence against them, even if it’s just in the context of a joke. Feelings of anger are justified and reinforced each time it is repeated, either in person or through the media. All this negativity can and does lead to real violence.

When violence occurs, some people often try to figure out reasons for why it might be the victim’s fault. “He wasn’t wearing a helmet,” or “She flipped the driver off, what did she expect?” Sometimes it doesn’t even have to go that far, and someone justifies the violence because some bicyclists run red lights sometimes. There is no excuse for violence against another road user.

It is all too easy to forget that each person on the road is a person. This inability to see humanity through a windshield goes both ways, but it is the cyclist who is most likely to get hurt in a violent interaction.

So, perhaps this would be as good a time as any to go out and try to connect with your road-mates. Try looking through the windshield and making a human connection of some kind, even if it is a simple nod and smile. After all, there’s really nothing for anyone to be angry about. We’re all just people getting where we’re going.

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4 responses to “Violent rhetoric and bicycles”

  1. NickBob

    Great post.

  2. Great post, Tom. Love the tone, the message– it’s a great example of what you’re asking for.

  3. Love the closing line–that sums it up. We’re all just people.


  4. binkura

    everybody needs to try out the other forms of transportation, so that they know how to approach situations from all perspectives. cyclists can be annoying and slow when you’re in a car, but drivers can be aggressive and unduly in a hurry when you’re on a bike or walking down the street! personally, I think seattle just needs more bike trails (away from motorized vehicular traffic), and more car-free spaces all over the city. paving pver everything to make car-friendly roads makes the city less people-friendly.

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