Power, politeness and the invalidation of anger

Or, is it ever OK to swear at someone?

Last Sunday, Helen Lewis posted a blog laying out her rules for using Twitter. On the face of it, as a series of rules to avoid flame wars, it seemed quite reasonable. However, Jude Elliott-Jones, an editor and human rights campaigner, objected strongly to West’s post arguing that Lewis is ‘actually shameless. Those are basically “how to keep your privilege & be the victim” rules’. I confess I didn’t really understand her point at first. Then Jason Rose, Head of Media for the Scottish Green Party revealed this advert, the latest charm offensive from Niceway Code, and suddenly I realised exactly what Elliot-Jones was getting at.

Niceway Code

You have to hand it to Niceway Code. Although they’ve probably set back cycle campaigning by about ten years, they have a knack for summing up everything that is wrong with British society in easy to understand, rather childish graphics.

I freely confess, I flip the birdie at drivers. I don’t do it because I’m rude. I may well be rude but that’s not the cause of my behaviour. I do it in response to drivers doing something dangerous, generally an overtaking manoeuvre that is some combination of too fast, too close and totally unnecessary. And yet according to this advert, it is my reaction that is wrong, not the behaviour that provoked it.

The Niceway Code is clearly invalidating my angry response by telling me that I should tolerate whatever it is drivers, the dominant group in society, dish out. They can act in ways that endanger my life but being rude back just isn’t nice and I shouldn’t do it. I should be polite. The Niceway Code is attempting to police my conduct, to shut me up, to take away the one defence I do have when drivers threaten me and that’s to be thoroughly impolite back. Frankly I think a one-fingered salute is a pretty minor response to imminent death but according to NWC it is ‘wrong’.

This is about controlling and policing someone’s behaviour. It’s about being dominant and thus being able to state the terms on which you will interact with someone. NWC  is stating that my anger is unjustified and by so doing are stating that the behaviour which provoked me is sanctioned. Careless, risky, dangerous driving, that’s fine. Daring to be rude about it, that isn’t. You know that bewildered/ angry look that drivers give you after you’ve sworn at them? They either genuinely don’t know what they did wrong, or they do know but they really don’t want to back down and admit it. NWC validates both these responses.

Likewise Lewis is saying that her own behaviour was fine and that it is Elliot-Jones, as the angry one, who is in the wrong. As deputy editor of the New Statesman, Lewis is in a privileged position. She is able to be heard, and she’s now dictating the terms of communication for those who do not have her platform. There is some history between the two. As I understand it Lewis offered Elliot-Jones a payment of £50 for an article (I may be wrong and will delete if that is the case). If it is the case, even at rather low blogging rates that pays for 330 words. It is an insulting offer.

Telling somebody to be polite, or nice, invalidates their anger. I don’t condone all angry reactions. Some people, on the internet and in real life, use anger to intimidate people into silence. However, in other cases anger can be a valid reaction. I get tired, as a woman, of being told that my anger is somehow inappropriate and unwomanly. There are insults specifically directed at women (fishwife, shrew) that mock their right to be angry. So when is it appropriate? When is it OK for me to shout, swear and scream blue murder at someone?

If I were screaming at someone who had less power than I do, that would be wrong. It would be bullying and intimidation. If I flip a finger at a car driver, that’s unproblematic. Since I’m on a bike and am a vulnerable road user, if I’m angry at them, locked in their safe metal box, they should consider the possibility that the problem lies with them, not me. If you are in a position of power and someone is angry with you, instead of policing their reaction, insisting on politeness and further trying to bend them to your will, have a think about whether or not you’ve just abused your power.

Dear Niceway Code

I realise that since your official launch on August 5 this year you’ve had a lot to contend with. Come to think of it, the soft launch the previous week couldn’t have been much fun either. I guess you’ve learned the hard way that cycling activists are erudite, informed and happy to express their views. Or you may be thinking that we’re just opinionated gobshites.

I know your campaign’s been dismantled by many bloggers and journalists. The Cycling Embassy nicely (sorry) rounded them all up. The highlight for me was Jake Bate’s systematic dismantling of your efforts in social media. So why then am I adding to your misery? Well to be honest, I don’t want to cause you misery. I appreciate that, whoever was in charge, the person at the sharp end, staffing your Twitter account at 8pm on a Friday night, didn’t ask for this gig. However, I’ve tried pointing out to you the problem with your premiss and you’re not really listening. You have argued in the past that since drivers perceive cyclists’ law breaking to be a problem, the two groups would get along better if cyclists stopped breaking the law. Many people have pointed out to you that you need to challenge drivers’ perceptions, not cyclists’ behaviour. And here is a picture that sums this up for you, and this is why I’m writing to you.

Audi driver


As you can see, all the cyclists are waiting at a red light. I can see at least 10 in this picture so if Bradley Wiggins’ former manager is right and 90% of cyclists jump red lights, 90 went through the lights ahead of them, in the red phase. That’s a mother of a long red phase, or a lot of very quick and organised cyclists. So note, these cyclists are just there. They’re not doing anything wrong.

The driver in  contrast is breaking the law but is so unbothered about this that he’s quite happy to post evidence of his behaviour on a public forum, unsurprisingly since 81% of drivers break the law in this way. And he’s whinging. He’s breaking the law and he’s whinging about a law-abiding group of people. Now do you see our problem? Now do you see why it’s taking me so much effort not to call you a bunch of incompetent, ignorant, un-analytical, pissnumpty wombles who are actually doing a lot of damage by simply reinforcing and encouraging negative stereotypes whilst doing sweet fanny adams about actual law-breaking and dangerous behaviour?

Anyway, Niceway Code, there you have it. One picture which shows you everything that is wrong with your campaign. It is the people in charge of the heavy objects who are irresponsible lawbreakers. And somehow they’ve convinced you that the people getting from A to B using an ecologically sound form of transport that reduces congestion are in the wrong. And if you can’t see why that’s wrong, you’re thicker than I thought.

It’s only a joke

I get a little confused with my Twitter timeline sometimes. I catch the edge of a debate and someone somewhere is saying ‘I was only joking’ or ‘but it’s my account, I can say what I like’ (although usually at least one word is spelled incorrectly). Given who I follow, this is probably one of two arguments. It’s either an “outspoken” woman who has been threatened with violence, rape or murder, whose respondent has returned the ‘only joking’ defence, or it’s a cyclist pulling someone up on making random threats to cyclists, whose respondent likewise has claimed it was a bit of a joke, honest.

Over the last few days I’ve noticed increasing resemblances between those who want to shut women up by threatening violence and those who think that running cyclists over is funny. Don’t get me wrong. I realise there are substantial differences between what women are threatened with and the treatment meted out to cyclists. I don’t mean to be insensitive here but I do find the similarities instructive. In fact at one point the two arguments collided when one charming individual claimed I would argue about “road tax” less if I had more cock in my life. News flash, dick wad, I could have been engaged in a Viagra-fuelled marathon for the previous 48 hours and I’d still call you out on your idiocy.

The most obvious difference is in the threats being put forward. People who cycle are threatened with being run over, women are threatened with rape and other violent acts when they transgress gender boundaries. If women are strident, outspoken or heaven forfend, feisty, they don’t fit certain norms about female behaviour and so, according to some individuals, sex should be used to control the supposedly errant behaviour (this is by no means a new threat, it was old hat when Shakespeare wrote Taming of the Shrew). And those adjectives are not used to describe men: speaking out is only a transgression and only worth describing as such if it is women doing the talking.

There are other differences in the threats. The ones to cyclists tend to be scattergun, just a broad ‘I hate cyclists there in the way innit’ (grammar and spelling are rarely the anti-cyclist’s strong suit). The ones to women are very specifically targeted and sent directly to a named person.  But what then of the similarities? When pulled up on their behaviour those doing the threatening most frequently resort to saying ‘I was only joking’. This got me thinking. What does it mean to be joking? What are we relying on when we make a joke? What pact is going on that it will be understood as such?

We might start from a baseline that jokes are funny. However, what counts as funny varies from person to person, which is partly what makes the ‘only joking’ defence possible and so insidious. Didn’t get the joke? Well aren’t you the humourless one. I don’t find Miranda remotely funny, others think the series is hilarious. Mrs Brown’s Boys? What? I just don’t see it. There are only 10 types of people in the world, those who understand binary and those who don’t. Now that is funny. Or pretentious bellendery. You choose.

Thus it’s not about whether or not the person hearing the joke finds it funny, but more about whether the intention was for it to be funny. And that intention can be light or dark. Humour is rarely purely joyous. Often it is used to survive dark situations and it is this sense of darkness that gives it its power and that makes the ‘only joking’ defence so problematic to combat.

In order to see if something is a joke or not, it helps to look at context. Frankie Boyle, no matter how offensive he might be, can fairly legitimately claim to be joking, since that is what he’s paid to do. Bomb threats at airports are never treated as a joke, so don’t try it. On public forums such as Twitter they may also get you into hot water. And again, the problem is context, and risk. How well do I know this person? Do I know this is a joke, based on how well I know them? If I don’t know them and have only 140 character soundbites in which to judge them, what are the odds it’s a joke? What are the dangers of assuming it’s a joke when it isn’t? (the airport might get blown up). What are the dangers of assuming it’s serious when it isn’t? (I might look stupid).

Now there are times when claiming in retrospect that something was a joke is roughly the equivalent of claiming the dog ate your homework. It lacks imagination and it’s obviously a post hoc excuse for something you’ve just realised is about to get you into trouble. You can see it here with Daisy Abela’s series of tweets:


She later claimed


Now, when friends ask me if I’m joking or not, as her friend did, I tend not to respond with ‘I’m deadly serious’ unless, you know, I’m being serious. Plus, some people really need lessons on the public nature of Twitter. It isn’t Facebook.

Having received so many tweets that she locked her account, Ms Abela apparently opened a new one specifically to apologise for her tweets, though not for hitting a cyclist, which she now denies, by and large.

(Read tweets from the bottom up):


When I asked her she would not explain why she’d seen fit to overtake when her way forward was not clear. (Hint, if the cyclist can easily catch up with you, you didn’t need to overtake though frankly if you need that explained to you, you are an idiot). She’s also not been entirely clear about why her story varied so much, except again to say it was a joke, just one the world in general didn’t get.


So what’s going on here? I mean apart from post hoc justification because the police were involved.

In Ms Abela’s case I think that’s all there is to it. She’s desperately looking for a way out because if what she said was serious, she had just confessed to deliberately driving into someone whilst drunk. However, often there is something else going on. The idea that something is a joke depends on trust and understanding between the joker and the listener. There’s an unwritten compact between the two. Now when this trust is broken, something more sinister is occurring.

There is a form of abuse known as gaslighting in which the abuser feeds someone misinformation so that they will call into doubt their own perception and memory. It is manipulative behaviour and the ‘only joking’ defence seems to me to be related to it. It’s putting the onus on the listener – it’s their behaviour that is called into question. The joker, oh they were only ever joking, don’t you know. Thus the listener, initially convinced that the statements were serious may well start to question their perception of events. Even if they don’t question their own perception, they’re still left on shifting sands because it is difficult to prove that it really was not a joke. The contract over what is or is not a joke has been broken.

In the case of the anti-cycling idiots, the ‘only joking’ defence is plainly daft. In the case of those who have threatened rape it is altogether nastier. First they are trying to control women by threatening sexual violence, then they are trying to undermine women by claiming that they don’t have a grasp on reality, that they cannot tell threat from joke. However, in both cases the abuse and threats come from a similar source. Women are threatened when they acts in ways not perceived as ‘feminine’ or ‘womanly’ enough by those doing the threatening. Cyclists are threatened because they too are seen as transgressing boundaries. Cyclists are not buying into a consumerist car culture. They’re not as invested in the materialism of car ownership as many anti-cyclists are. They probably own cars as well, they just choose not to use them the whole time. In both cases, threats are an expression of fear.

Now I’m off for a strident, shrewish, hysterical pedal on my bike, whilst shouting like a fishwife. And no, that isn’t a joke.