When I am (not) a cyclist

Fluff words like “culture” are rarely useful if left undefined. And when cycle campaigning gets into the “social norm” discussion, it rarely does that in full awareness of consequences. These tedious debates have various sides – and have some serious practicalities attached. The common social-norm assertions are “I am not a cyclist, but I ride a bike” and “I am a proud/keen cyclist”. Both are obscuring, in my view.

Looking at the power differentials as a first step is instructive but typically left out. Yet the question of WHY a certain position needs to be asserted is a vital question to be asked. Once you understand a background, it puts you in a much better position to give a relevant reply, appropriate to its context. If you feel suppressed because you are a cyclist, it is worth asking why that would be case and why you feel that way. Is it because someone imposes something on you? To which a natural reaction could be either an appeasing reframing (“I am not a cyclist, I drive too”) or you might be fighting back (“I am a proud/keen cyclist”).

For individuals it is natural to want to belong to a big and powerful group as it offers a safe place and the opposing situation could be very energy-consuming. If however your identity and morals are compromised too much, you may look elsewhere – and as a cyclist you could end up on the outside of that powerful place. You feel small. It is helpful, perhaps, to understand that big and powerful “automobility paradigm” would always want to push you in a corner, incapacitate you and silence you. It is only your reaction that you have control over. You do not have control over automobility and its long and winding roads to promised privilege and status. Yes, cycling pitches against driving and its clear links to (turbo) capitalism and economy-obsessed neoliberalism.

History of social activism tells us that you can reclaim words of oppression. Nigger here is perhaps the most prominent example which was wholly taken back by the black ethnic minority – they owned it! Our reaction to a negatively-connoted “cyclist” or even “bloody cyclist” could be the same. Reframing and reclaiming the meaning of the word can even be empowering for the group. Controlling its connotation is reshaping reality. The one who controls the narrative, words and rhetoric, ultimately controls reality. “I am a cyclist” (yes, leave out the keen/proud) could well be and become an appropriate answer. But, bewre, solely arguing from within can be exclusively repulsive too.

The other reaction could be to re-align yourself. The question you may have to ask yourself here is what you want to align to. Where is your allegiance? A denying is most likely not enough and may even end in assimilation. Although it could be argued successfully that “I am not a cyclist” disrupts enough to open up conversation.  Maybe, then, when a conversation is possible in your view, “I am not a cyclist” could help in that situation.

In any case, learning to give long answers helps. But you would still be in need of a soundbite.

Clearly this is a big subject and I have only scratched some atoms off the surface. However I hope the distinctions I have made are useful ones. Being aware of these distinctions, I suggest, could inform and instruct group formation and coalescing of communal campaigning effort. What is less useful however is putting any of these two statements up as an ultimate assertion when, really, they are highly context dependent. Overall, neither of them is an endearing campaigning slogan or good motto.

Ultimately both are tedious, contested and besides the major point: building and improving infrastructure that creates conditions where the majority can cycle safely and comfortably without fear of discrimination and harassment. I know it’s a scary notion, but the environment does create social norms.

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