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Fri, 31 Jul 2009

Telling The Other Guy What To Do

Telling other people what they should do is tricky business, even if what you are telling them is for their own good.

We tell our kids what they should do all the time. A firm, guiding hand appears to be necessary with human children if they are to survive into adolescence. At a minimum, toilet training is a must; I read somewhere that all human societies known today, or in all of recorded history, potty trained their kids. However, it's not clear how important parental guidance is after our kids have learned basic survival skills. I've certainly heard people posit as axiomatic how important parenting is no matter how old the kid. This is repeated so many times by so many different people that it must be true, right? But people have posited as axiomatic a lot of things that didn't turn out to actually be true.

Not that I'll argue post-poop-management parenting is pointless. There's always hope we can steer our kids away from harm. I just really wonder how much additional "wisdom" I can pass on to my kids, especially as teenagers and adults. Does my "PG" actually guide my kids? And even if I can reach them, I'm not sure I should allow myself the conceit of believing that my adult-to-teen advice profits them in any certain, measurable way. It may do quite the opposite. Maybe the best thing to do is live life the way I believe it should be lived, let them observe that, think about it, and subsequently make up their own minds about what value that "lesson" might have to them.

I've been thinking about this telling-others-what-to-do question for a lot of reasons. The question appears in political debates. Choice versus life. It appears in workplace conflict. Some are bosses and some are bossed. But most interestingly, it appears within a common occurrence during my regular bicycle rides. I've been riding bike a lot, so this topic keeps running through my brain.

Although we often see smiles and waves from other cyclists, farmers on tractors, Amish on buggys, and most motorcycle riders, bicyclists commonly receive insulting gestures from automobile and pick-up truck drivers. This abuse is disturbingly common. Virtually everyone who rides a bike more than a few score miles on public roads will be able to tell you about a time they were abused by a motorist. Usually it's a shout of "get off the road" accompanied by the one finger salute; sometimes its lobbed beer can, sometimes it's a shot from a rifle.

On one memorable occasion I was riding up a long, winding hill. The road had a limited but useful shoulder, and traffic was moderate. I felt good about the road and my place on it. I wasn't impeding traffic in any way and didn't feel threatened by cars. I'll even flatter myself to say that I wasn't even riding that slowly up the grade.

In the middle of the climb, I pulled off onto a overlook parking area near a historical sign. I thought it would be nice to admire the view and read about the area as I caught my breath. An old, beat up, station wagon approached from the opposite direction, pulled into the area and stopped next to me. The driver's window rolled down and I saw a woman -- a bit old and beat up herself -- sitting behind the wheel. She took a last drag on her cigarette as I spoke first.

"Howdy," I said to her with a smile. "Nice spot."

"Yeah, but the road is narrow and windy. Up ahead there's a sharp turn. Cars won't be able to see you. They'll just come around the turn and cream you," she replied with a scowl.

"Really? They'd do that?" I asked in mock horror.

"Yes they would. No way to avoid it. What you should do is get off and walk up the outside. That way you should be safe. But if you ride on the right side, a car or truck will drive right over you."

"Are you saying that people drive recklessly on this road -- too fast to stop if something is around a corner?" Implicit is that she might be one of the reckless, but my subtle jibe couched in sarcastic concern was wasted on her.

"No other way for them to do it. This road is just not a place for a bicycle. You're sure to get killed. Bikes shouldn't be allowed here."

"Gosh, I'm sorry to hear that. Thanks for the advice."

"You're welcome."

After she drove away, I continued up the road the same way I had been: riding on the right as required by law. I passed the dreaded "suicide curve" and reached the top with no trouble. Many cars and trucks passed me with no harm whatsoever.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not claiming there was no risk riding on that road. I'm not even claiming that she was giving me bad advice. Walking along on the outside shoulder would conceivably add some marginal safety, at the cost of taking longer, possibly increasing the opportunity for a different kind of accident. But maybe, in an exact risk analysis, her suggestion would turn out to be a better plan. Or maybe not. I don't really know.

My point is that this was my risk to judge. Her opinion was unsolicited and, from my perspective, wrong and downright rude.

I wonder what she would have done if I had replied as follows: "Now that you have given me advice about what's best for my health, let me give you some advice. Quit smoking. If you continue chain smoking like you are, you'll be poorer, and likely die of cancer or heart disease. In my opinion, smoking shouldn't be allowed. The government should make it illegal. Just thought you'd like to know that." I suspect she wouldn't have appreciated me telling her what she should do even though it was, in some sense, logical and reasonable. She'd probably feel that it was her risk to judge.

Of course, smoking and cycling are so different that you can't really compare the two exactly. There are many ways the analogy doesn't fit. Cycling, for example, is generally good for your health. Smoking is by many measures a destructive addiction. Regardless of these differences, I think my point is still valid. No one likes to be forced to do something, even if it's good for them. Kids don't like to be told things, but society condones their coaching because at some level kids need direction.

Telling another adult what to do is a different matter entirely. Yet it's hard to resist the practice of giving unsolicited advice. There is a kind of insidious logic where we reason something out and thereby believe it to be true in some universal way. If that's the case, the logic goes, it doesn't diminish the liberty of others should we demand they act in conformance with what we "prove" to ourselves to be universal truth.

That logic sounds plausible and at the top of the pyramid can be offered as justification for the arguably beneficial "rule of law". But the flaw in the syllogism is that reasonable people can disagree about many things; one true fact about the world is that some things simply are not decidable. Nietzsche's perspectivism talks about this, and, of course, other philosophers have other takes on it. I particularly like Isaiah Berlin's positive and negative liberty analysis.

In politics, the tricky business of telling people what they should do is the whole point. In some circles it has become a recreational drug -- a power trip. We hear US conservatives talk about the "nanny state" and label liberals as power trippers telling people what they should do. By their rhetoric, the lady driver demanding that I walk my bike around the busy curve must've been a liberal. (Oddly, I distinctly remember seeing a Bush/Cheney bumper sticker on her back bumper.) No, not for a moment do I believe that so-called liberals are the only control freaks or givers of unsolicited advice.

But I really don't want to get into all that. I'd be lecturing at you, fair reader. Instead, I want to tell more stories about a motorists that lecture me.

On a different occasion, I was with a group of riders threading our way through a set of consecutive traffic lights in a busy city area. There was someone in a pickup truck immediately behind us who became agitated because he couldn't get by our peloton. The lights were adversely timed, preventing any vehicle, bike or car, from making much more than a walking pace through these city blocks. Consequently, we were spread across the road, relaxing, talking amongst ourselves as we incremented through. We were in full ownership of the lane, blocking all passers, as we stood their waiting for the next light to change. When it changed, we'd roll as a group to the next red light and stop again. In some strict sense we were in the way of traffic, but we were not additionally impeding anyone's progress as traffic was already impeded by the lights. We would immediately thread into a single file on the right shoulder and let cars pass as soon as we cleared the last traffic light and the pace of traffic could pick up.

Well, the pick-up driver we were blocking had no patience for our relaxed attitude. As the light turned green there was a roar as the truck accelerated into the oncoming lane, zoomed up next to us, and swerved diagonally in front of us. This particular bunch of riders was pretty nimble and managed to compress quickly enough to avoid a collision. Down went the passenger window of the pick-up, and we were faced with a relatively overweight, bald, middle aged man twisting (as best he could) to confront us. He was wearing a red polo shirt with a fire company logo. The color of his angry face almost matched his shirt.

"I ride bicycles myself but what you guys are doing is all wrong," he shouted. "You need to get to the right side of the road. Move it! Now!"

Normally, when faced with irate motorists (or irate people in general) it's best to be non-confrontational. Let them have their say, apologize if that seems appropriate, and let it go. This agreeable "Elwood P. Dowd" strategy seems to minimize the emotional cost of the encounter for everyone and keeps the incident from escalating to violence.

With other sorts of irate animals, this may or may not be a good idea. I'm told that you don't confront Grizzly bears, but you should fight back against black bears and mountain lions. When a cyclist is chased by a dog, stopping and conversing meekly "Nice, nice, Rover," seems almost as effective as continuing quickly shouting harsh commands: "Rover, STOP IT NNOOOWWWW!". It's the middle road, ignoring them, that fails with irate dogs that chase.

In this particular situation with an irate human animal, the near squashing we had just managed to dodge had levered the emotions of our bunch into a less than agreeable mood. We were confrontational.

"We have the same right to be on this road as you do," said one of us in reply to his demand that we move aside.

And so the shouting match began. The big firefighter was out and around the truck in a flash. It was ten against one, but the one was pretty big and very loud. Clearly he was used to giving orders to unruly groups and having them obeyed. We were becoming an unruly group, but we were definitely not obeying, and this was pissing him off all the more. There was some chest bumping and finger pokes but, fortunately for everyone, no blows were thrown. In the end, the light changed green, he strutted back into his vehicle, slammed the door, and zoomed away in a cloud of incompletely burnt diesel fuel.

By the way, speaking of diesel, I don't have solid scientific data on this, but being abused by people driving "Super Duty" diesel powered 4x4 pickup trucks seems to me to be more common than abuse I've received from drivers of any other kind of vehicle. School bus drivers, the yellow sheathed bastards, are the worst in terms of side-swiping and cutting us off with reckless disregard, but school bus attacks are silent and impersonal. Pick-up drivers favor the face-to-face verbal abuse. I wonder why? What aspect of the pick-up truck driver psyche inspires them to stop and berate bicycle riders? Could there be some analogous wiring that a pick-up driver's brain shares with a habitual bike-chasing canine?

I hasten to add that I've had very little trouble with operators of real trucks: big rig semis, dumps, tow-trucks, concrete mixers, or cranes. These sorts of truck driving men appear to navigate with their top priority being to not hit things, as I generally observe them giving everything a wide berth. I'd like to believe this is because they grant me the same respect they grant, say, a telephone pole. But maybe I'm fooling myself. Big rig drivers could still hate me. They might be cussing my mother from within the confines of their cabs; being on a tight schedule for their job, they are unable to stop for a more satisfying direct harangue.

Anyway, the unsolicited advice and other verbal abuse I get from drivers isn't only on the highway. Sometimes I'll get a dose of it in ordinary interaction that occurs in other contexts. At the benign end of the spectrum, it could be just curiosity. For example, oftentimes when I happen to mention that I'm a bicycle rider, the first thing someone will ask is how I deal with the traffic. "I'd like to ride a bicycle myself," begins a common query, "I could use the exercise, but there's just too much traffic around here. Aren't you afraid of being hit by a car?"

In truth, I don't think about being hit by cars at all. Yes, I'm often bothered by the presence of cars, especially being pummeled by the noise that precedes them and the sand and gravel infused wind gust that follows. By the way, one of the silliest things that motorists do is to beep their horns to alert a cyclist of their approach. Motorists don't realize how really noisy their machines are. Rattletraps with bad mufflers (or motorcycles intentionally designed to be noisy) can be heard across town. Even a well tuned late model car with a good muffler has tire noise that a cyclist can hear up to a mile away if the wind is right. Certainly by the time the motorist thinks it reasonable to blast those "friendly", ear splitting honks, we already are well aware of their approach. The honks simply pummel us more.

Sharing the road with cars can certainly detract from the experience of cyclists in more ways that the extreme of fear for our lives, but I've never heard of a cyclist stopping to lecture a motorist about proper muffler repair or mud flaps. Generally we go about our business trying to stay out of the way as best we can, staking more of a claim to the road only when our safety is threatened.

In any case, "No," I tell them. "I do my best to tune out the cars." I look and listen for vehicles at critical moments, and I think I have good general-purpose habits that serve to keep me from being creamed -- along with the fact that I tend to follow the traffic laws -- but whether I'll be flattened at any given moment, that I trust to fate.

That's the benign end of the spectrum when it comes to casual conversation. Sometimes they aren't so politely inquisitive and drivers will lecture or berate me in these conversational, non-driving situations. When they learn I'm a cyclist, sometimes they begin by dangling bait in front of me. One recent example was a person that said "I wonder if all the gasoline wasted by drivers slowing down to go around you makes up for the gas you save riding your bike." A clever angle, assuming, as it seem to, that cyclists are riding to avoid the use of fossil fuel and thereby have some wider goal to save the planet -- liberal, left-wing, Lycra-encased losers that we surely are.

In the most recent case like this, I recall that I just smiled and stayed silent, letting the bait dangle without a nibble. I thought maybe to grumble something non-committal about "my DWI", but decided it was best not to go there.

On the specific question at hand, I don't think drivers waste significant fuel passing us safely, but of course, a lot of cyclists really are political liberals, and what's more, even they will actually agree that their "hobby" cycling tends to demand a lot of support miles driven by there own gasoline powered cars -- yes, their green Prius still ultimately runs on gas. The critique implicit in the bait is fundamentally true. I will note that riding a bike to work is a different matter. Bike commuters are true heroes, planet-saving wise, but they are relatively rare. Cycling, as a whole, has a big carbon footprint.

But that's not the point. Why do people think they have the license to bait us in these ways. I hear a lot of hot air about "freedom", but ever Herbert Spencer probably would have realized that in all populations greater than one person, liberty implies some tolerance. And no, it's not just tolerance of other people that agree with me who are doing things exactly like what I'm doing. That's the easy sort of tolerance. The tougher, truly Christian form of tolerance is when we tolerate people that want to do other things that we may not want to do ourselves -- things we struggle to even understand.

I mean, I fully understand why bicycles are banned from interstate highways and some big bridges. Motorists probably understand why cars are banned from rail-trails. But on all other paved, public roads, we need to share even though we can't quite understand the other guy's choice of transport machine.

Not to say that motorists don't have some legitimate gripes. Certainly they are right to gripe when cyclists break the law. Cyclists can be vehicles with an equal right of access to the road, but with that right comes the responsibility to follow the rules of the road that other vehicles follow. Bikes need to stop at red lights. Or at least, bikes need to stop at the lights that actually change for us; some traffic signals that rely on vehicle sensors can't detect a bicycle and will never change. Bike-oblivious signals are effectively stop signs, and definitely bikes must stop (temporarily) at all stop signs, including those 4-way stops we like to blow through because we can hear traffic coming in 4 directions simultaneously without needing to actually look. Also, bicycles must move predictably and be in the proper lane for a turn. I hate when riders dash on and off sidewalks, cutting across multiple lanes without signaling, or ride on the left side of a two way road.

Lots of cyclists will scoff these vehicle code basics and their slapdash practice doesn't help our cause when we demand equal access to the road. But car drivers aren't perfect law abiding people either. As I said, it's about tolerance. Vehicular pluralism requires us to make accommodations both for the best and worst practices of the other guy. We must separate our disapproval of bad practice from the question of whether the practice itself is to be tolerated.

Posted Jul 31, 2009 at 00:18 UTC, 3328 words,  [/danPermalink

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