Cyclists as Oppressed Group, Again

Not so long ago I wrote a post suggesting some parallels between institutional oppression of women, people of colour, the disabled, etc, and the institutional annoyances that cyclists face on the road. My argument was that many experiences of oppressed groups are reproduced (in a much more minor way, obviously) in the experience of urban cyclists.  Commenting on a Toronto Sun article, MGK recently approached the point I was trying to make. Although he doesn’t explicitly make the parallel, he argues against the idea that cyclists and motorists both make mistakes and need to learn to co-operate – in other words, the idea that there is no relevant, fundamental power difference between cyclists and motorists. He finishes with this paragraph:

The problem is not cyclists. Yeah, there are a few asshole cyclists out there, but there’s a few assholes everywhere: most cyclists are generally law-abiding. The problem is drivers, because the root of the problem is that every driver wishes that they had the road to themselves, and unlike their relationship with other drivers, the relationship a driver has with a cyclist is inherently an imbalanced one.

Now this is undeniably close to the rhetoric of oppression. Replace ‘driver’ with ‘man’ and ‘cyclist’ with ‘woman’, or use cop/citizen if you’re an anarchist type, and you get a clear explanation for why the problem with violence against women isn’t women being provocative (or police brutality isn’t the fault of citizens being assholes). The cyclist/motorist dynamic is, to a small extent, one more facet of the awful diamond of intersectional politics (there’s a pun there somewhere).

If the parallel is easy to see reading MGK’s article, it’s glaring in the comments. You get the exact same terrible arguments that are used to justify sexism, racism, homophobia and so on: the “cyclists can be assholes too, so a pox on both their houses”, the “if you let cycling activists get enough victories, they’ll take over the entire city”, and more. One guy shared his story of cars waving him through intersections where they had right of way – which actually made things more dangerous for him, since it made their behaviour unpredictable – and got a bunch of responses saying “oh, you’re making a big deal out of nothing, why can’t you just go through when they let you go through”.

These arguments are all painfully familiar to anybody who’s spent any time at all reading about, say, feminism on the internet. “Men are jerks, sure, but women do terrible things too!” “If we give feminists their way we’ll be cutting guys’ dicks off if they look at a woman wrong!” And when women share their stories of dangerous or unpleasant moments, hordes of dudes swan up to tell them it’s no big deal, they’re making something out of nothing.

Most of all – and I know it makes me sound kind of obsessive, but I have to say it anyway – seeing this convinces me that the fundamental anarchist critique of hierarchy is right. If you’re an anarchist, you should be against coercion, which means you should be against power, which means you should, in situations like these, be primarily concerned with the power differentials at play between drivers and cyclists. You should see that you can’t divorce an individual instance from the general fabric of power, institutional and otherwise. Ideally (which, of course, is a word meaning ‘never in practice’) anarchists should be for cyclist rights as instinctively as they are for feminism, against racism, and against the State.


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