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.