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.

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5 Comments

Filed under Cycling

5 responses to “Power, politeness and the invalidation of anger

  1. The biggest problem with the ad is that it ignores the cause of the anger. Most people who ride bicycles are not angry the vast majority of the time, there is something about riding a bicycle that is rather calming. So when cyclists get angry with motorists there is generally a very good reason for their anger. Rather than deal with this issue and address the problem of bad driving and bullying on our roads. Cycling Scotland chose the “lets blame the victim” approach, much to my frustration as one of the “key stakeholders” who were consulted.

    It was notable that the non cycling interests in the room out numbered the cycling lobby, also that the motoring lobby didn’t understand the point when I tried to explain this to them. Feeling that it was better to tell everybody to be nice and ignore who was doing the dying and who the killing.

    • I get the impression they just went with what the dominant group (motorists) were telling them and ignored minority voices because minorities aren’t very important to them. Thus they completely ignored the fact that those minorities are the most vulnerable and the ones who most need listening to

  2. Paul

    Amen. That is so right. I had a car try to grind me into some railings this morning. He only got half way past me when a car came the other way and the look of indignation on his face was stunning when I made it clear to him what I thought about his parentage and driving ability.

  3. Can we flash mob Cycling Scotland and all flip them the bird in one mass photo shoot? 😀

    • Oh, can we? I know it confirms their suspicions about cyclists but they’re not listening to anything that numerous people are telling them. Flash mobbing them would be fun.

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