Sad but true: Childhood bullying is a good preparation for cycling on England’s roads

As a schoolchild I was subjected to some horrendous bullying for the crime of being (drrrrumroll) ginger. Explaining this, as an adult, it’s not unusual for other adults to ask why I didn’t just dye my hair, which amazes me because even at the age of 11 I had worked out that the problem wasn’t me being ginger. The problem was other people’s attitudes to me being ginger and those attitudes would have become more entrenched, not less, if I had dyed my hair brown. By the time I was in my teens I had worked out that it was important not to change but to maintain my appearance. If people rejected me because of the colour of my hair they weren’t worth knowing. As a reason for discriminating against someone, this was less than skin deep.

There is no doubt that the bullying scarred me. I attribute much of my later depression to the treatment I received at school. However, I wouldn’t necessarily change what happened because as an adult, it gave me something else. I realised that if I had changed my hair to brown and fitted in, there would have been something else that I or someone else had been picked on for. If my hair had fitted in, something else, probably even more minor, wouldn’t have done. The end result of kowtowing to bullies is that we all end up looking and acting in very similar ways to escape the process of bullying and yet this doesn’t prevent bullying. It encourages it by giving bullies the result that they want.

Whilst as a young teenager I was almost constantly told I was ugly and undesirable, in my late teens something changed. Men began to see me as someone they really, really wanted to shag. I’m under no illusions that their emotions were anything more complex than that but suddenly I was considered something of a trophy because of the very looks which had been mocked a couple of years before. It was confusing, and to be honest meant I didn’t really respect the men who were judging my appearance. I wasn’t pleased that they were judging me positively. They had already judged me so negatively and I was bright enough to realise that the issue wasn’t a positive or negative pronouncement on my appearance. The issue was that they were judging me on my appearance at all. I realised that good looks were a fortunate chance, not an achievement. For this realisation I am grateful. (I know that appearance is often an important part of attraction. It isn’t however a reason to shout at people across the street and loudly announce your verdict on their appearance).

This knowledge of bullying has stood me in good stead when it comes to cycling on English roads. Apart from anything else, it’s given me the confidence to judge what I’m up to based on facts, not on other people’s prejudices. It’s why I so dislike the othering of cyclists – that sense that what one does, they are all responsible for because they are all other and different, and linked together by that difference. Thus when someone argues that cyclists would be more popular if only they obeyed the rules, I don’t just agree. Instead, I looked beyond the surface and analyse what else might be going on.

When new kid on the Twitter block @CyclePledge emerged s/he made what might at first glance seem a reasonable case. That is: ask a few people what they dislike about cyclists. Listen to the response “It’s because they don’t obey the Highway Code” and set out to do two things, first get cyclists to pledge to obey the Highway Code and second try to prove that they already obey it. Cycle Pledge has taken something of a battering and I’d rather not add to it, but I do feel it necessary to explain why I object.

One of the things I learned from being bullied is that if you have an image problem, it’s a distinct possibility that the problem is in the eye of the beholder, not with you. Thus it’s quite likely that if people think cyclists don’t obey traffic regulations, the problem is one of perception rather than reality. And indeed this is the case. In the majority of collisions involving bikes, the fault lies with the driver, not the cyclist. The majority of cyclists stop at red lights despite the fact that road design and generalised fear make it quite tempting not to. Added to this, anecdotally, I find that when I’m told off for doing something wrong on a bike, I’m actually obeying the law and the other person is just wrong (e.g. when you’re cycling on a cycle path and get told off for cycling on the pavement by someone who’s just unobservant). Add into this the whole “road tax” argument and you can see that dislike of cyclists is based on perceptions, not what cyclists are actually doing. People don’t like cyclists and then look for reasons to justify this.

It becomes more obvious that “not obeying the Highway Code” is just an excuse when you look at who actually breaks traffic regulations i.e. motorists. The majority of drivers break laws concerning mobile phones and driving. According to the RAC   83% of drivers admit they speed regularly, whilst 92% say they are law-abiding, a stat that says almost all you need to know about attitudes to breaking traffic regulations. Indeed the notion that motorists are law abiding extends to the argument that speed is safe and the laws are wrong. There are whole websites devoted to giving warnings of the location of speed cameras and drivers complain when cameras are hidden although the obvious way to avoid a speeding fine is just not to speed.

Thus, if law breaking were a genuine reason not to like a group of road users, motorists would be amongst the most hated group in society, but they’re not. Instead, their ways around obeying the law are generally tolerated and sometimes lauded. So if law breakers are OK, you can see that no amount of pledging to obey the Highway Code is going to make anyone like a cyclist – because that’s not the real reason for the dislike. My bullying was less to do with my hair colour, more specifically to do with the fact that I didn’t care that I looked different and so made people feel insecure. Cyclists too are disliked for being part of a minority that challenges entrenched thinking.

There is an instructive asymmetry at play here. The children who bullied me for my hair colour were being obviously and thoroughly unreasonable. Adults expressing dislike for cyclists on the grounds that they disobey rules are on the face of it being reasonable which is why it’s easy to fall for their argument. Add in the fact that out of all cyclists everywhere some of them will break the rules at some point and you give people the perfect opportunity to say “yes, that’s right, yesterday I saw a cyclist on the pavement”. But, being bullied taught me much about human behaviour, principally that people will pick on difference and then rationalise their prejudice, and that is what is happening when people say they dislike cyclists for law breaking. As noted above, if law breaking, particularly dangerous law breaking, were their real problem, it would be drivers they hated.

Thus when Cycle Pledge argues that cyclists should pledge to say they obey the Highway Code, all s/he is really doing is promising that gingers will dye their hair. It’s confirming someone’s prejudice, not tackling it. The seeming reasonableness of the request make it more dangerous, not less. It’s the same prejudice being pandered to, it’s just managed to disguise itself with the semblance of rationality. It’s failing to get at the root cause of the dislike and instead tackling the post hoc justification for it.

The better option would be to campaign for cyclists to have designated spaces. At the moment, when you examine the design of our roads, towns and cities, what you see is space for cars, with a little room for pedestrians and very little specifically for cyclists. Our environment is designed to say “cyclists are not one of us, there is no room for them”. Redesign towns so that cyclists are included and are part of the accepted norm and you should find a shift in social attitudes towards that acceptance. Cyclists will stop being other when they are included within public spaces rather than designed out of them.

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International Men’s Day

But why can’t we have International Men’s Day?

“Pfft, you women, you say you want equality but you have a whole day to yourselves and we men don’t do we”. OK, it was a tweet. But I still saw it.

Well it’s good news, men. You can have International Men’s Day. But first you do have to fulfil the following criteria:

Every time you leave your front door, think about what you’re wearing. Ask yourself, is this likely to spark off a cacophony from passing women, who are physically bigger and stronger and will therefore make me feel vulnerable and threatened just for leaving my own front door in jeans and a jumper

Don’t go out on your own after dark. Well preferably don’t go out on your own. If you do go out on your own, especially after dark, and suffer a criminal act, expect people to ask why you were out on your own. And at that time of night. And what you were doing

You do “x” like a boy is an insult. Also “boyish” is an insult. From here on in, just for being in your own skin, you’ll be told you’re weak and inferior. But don’t worry. 1 day out of every 365 we’ll celebrate you, so it’s OK

4.8% of CEO positions at S&P 500 companies will be held by men

At many academic institutions, only 1 in 10 professors will be male, although you’ll be pleased to know that at lower grades, you’re almost on parity, so you know, what’s the fuss

You’ll live with the fear that around 1 in 5 men will be raped in their lifetime and that if that happens to you, someone will say it was your fault for doing something. It doesn’t matter what that was. It could have been being out late, wearing the “wrong” thing, being drunk, trusting someone.  Anything. Because some people fail to realise and acknowledge that rape is the fault of rapists, not that of their victims. Because some people persist in believing myths about rape.

You’ll live with the knowledge that you’ll always earn less than women, whether you choose to have children or not

You’ll read articles about your achievements as an astrophysicist that start “Dave is a father of two, how does he fit it all in?”

Almost every film that you watch will leave you feeling disengaged because 90% of the cast are white and female and the 10% that aren’t will get shot early on or wait on tables. Or get shot whilst waiting on tables

Someone will develop a test asking if at least two men in a work of fiction talk about something other than a woman. At least half of all films will fail this test because they will all be about women doing women things

You’ll be told that an alien with two hearts who time travels, solves the world’s problems with a sonic screwdriver, regenerates, and travels in a box that’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside can’t be male, because that would be really weird

You’ll be told you’re shrewish, bold, hysterical, rude or bossy just for doing your job and expressing an opinion. You’ll have a nagging feeling that women don’t get treated like that

Women will explain things to you. Even when you have a PhD in the topic and a wealth of work experience and they have neither of these things and are clearly wrong, they will explain your own job to you. They will call you a boy whilst they do this, even though you’re 38. Then when you object, they’ll say you’re being hysterical

When we give people two equal CVs, one with a male name and one with a female name, people will judge the one with the man’s name on more harshly

Famous male authors will be told to publish as women or just use initials instead of a full first name because a book by Joe Rowling wouldn’t sell

We’ll give you one day to celebrate you and someone will manage to ruin even that by saying “but it’s not fair, why do you get a whole day to yourself?”