In her shoes

In my ‘anthropological travels’ I have seen some weird and wonderful things. My excursions take me to distant cultures and countries far away… no, not really. Readers of this blog may remember, I am an uneasy traveller and rather prone to staying put. I like to get a place, rather than swoosh through it. Let’s talk about something rather static: let’s talk about agency. And her shoes.

You may know, agency is a concept in sociology that is concerned with the capability, ability or chance to act. Can you do something about your poverty? How much can you do about your own health? How much does the environment determine your travel choices? Good and well. It’s complicated, and quitely clearly, not all is in the purview of an individual decision. There also are collective problems with structural solutions.

The American Dream

Then some political plundering took place. The concept of agency is closely linked to the (nowadays neoliberal) discussion of freedom and choice. Reframing alarm! It gets messy, as now politics enter the stage – politics, enter, stage right. Often an illusion of freedom and choice is created by right-oriented politics – most notably through the hijacking of the grand idea of the American Dream. The impression is given that Everyone Has A Fair Chance and we all play on a Level Playing Field, and if you don’t take to it: well, it’s your own fault. The people who fail (let’s remind ourselves that most do not become mill/billionaires) are told you did not try hard enough, it is your fault, keep going trying. No prize for the lazy. It’s quite a propaganda machine, ending unfairly but squarely in blaming the individual. It’s an American Nightmare. Yes, you can stop eating fast food, but if it’s the cheapest food on offer? What then!

Often we attribute agency where there is none, or leave out agency of our ‘behavioural models’ altogether. Conflation with personal constraints often takes place (money, time, etc). On close critical inspection, freedom and choice, as nice as these sound, are illusionary and rarely exist in that clarity. Agency is not present. The person cannot act. Great if you yourself are feeling strong. But also, empathetically, question what situation others may be in. What are their possibilities, options, situations – their strengths, weaknesses and what position to they inhabit?

Talking about agency does not make you weak or a victim.

What has this got to do with cycling?

The masculine-style (even macho!) cycle campaigner puts too much on their egotistical self-centred viewpoint, lending itself to “wanting others to act as I do”. If I can do it, others can do it too. Thereby rather forgetting that “these others” have a different situation, a different need (responsibility over kids, being a more notable one, but there are others some listed in last week’s post here). Yes, I know, notallmen.

What WTF has this got to do with women?

As indeed last week’s post describes, women in our society are the care takers still. Gendered roles have not gone away (yet) and bring with them responsibilities over life and limb, and yes, shopping. I won’t mention shoes here. Stereotypes. Some comprehension by macho campaigners – I do admire your stamina, but it’s sooo ill-placed – would be helpful here. Talking about agency is not a weakness. In fact, if we fail to talk about agency and the other’s needs we fail to be inclusive, and miss out on the diversity of (future) cycling that good quality cycling infrastructure and urban design can bring. In that sense I remain reserved about yet another Cycling UK initiative – we, first and foremost with eye on the ball, want others to join us in the fight for inclusive urban design, not want others to cycle. We mix up actions and goals here again.

Often campaigners with strong ego (and macho-tendencies) get worn out by experiencing their own agency diminished by running into the dominant system of automobility, that strongly chokes us all. Their virility and strength is put in question! Anger and frustration ensues. Where to put it? Thing is putting that hurt (ego) onto others, is not just childish, it is also a way of kicking down, when you should be kicking up. To the masculine campaigner: it is not your personal fault this whole thing hasn’t shifted! Calm down, dear, and think where to best put your energy!

Only a long-term campaign plan will get us out of this. And maybe that way we can fish some stranded damaged soggy egos out of the choppy waters, revitalise their dampened souls, and engender some collective fighting spirit.

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