Carl Alviani on Jul 3 2014
An NPR journalist’s fumbled tweet exposes a hole in the debate about urban cycling
Scott Simon’s bio on the NPR website describes him as “one of America’s most admired writers and broadcasters,” and it’s tough to argue with that. As a Peabody-winning journalist with decades of experience, Simon’s credentials are unimpeachable, and as the Saturday host of Weekend Edition, he regularly shows himself to be all the things you want a radio host to be: thoughtful, avuncular, well-informed, and above all, smart.
Simon also has one and a quarter million followers on Twitter, and last Thursday morning, he asked them this:
Now, you may have had this very thought, after watching someone on a bike blow through a red light, try and lane split through moving traffic, or do something similarly irresponsible. As Simon points out in a follow-up tweet, it happens all the time.
The problem, of course, is that no matter how egregious their behavior was, the three people he observed don’t indicate that “cyclists consider themselves above the law,” any more than a pair of jaywalkers prove that pedestrians are morally opposed to crosswalks. It also takes the very broad problem of traffic violations and limits it to a single minority, ignoring the millions of car and truck drivers who flout the law every day, not to mention those scofflaw pedestrians.
What Simon did in this pair of tweets was overgeneralize about a large group based on the behavior of a few members, and then tie that group to another member with a lot of bad press—two demonizing tactics that’ve been employed pretty much forever, to attack groups ranging from corporate lawyers to Asian drivers to welfare recipients.
Numerous replies pointed out as much, the most entertaining coming from author Eben Weiss, who writes a popular long-running blog out of New York City called BikeSnob:
The rest of the exchange consisted of sympathetic followers favoriting and retweeting Simon’s posts, others responding in passionate agreement, and dozens more drawing attention to its obvious fallacy (in a generally civil tone—Weiss’ snarky retort was about as combative as it got). Simon followed up several more times over the course of the day, appearing at first defensive, then dismissive, and finally a bit chastened and almost conciliatory.
Now, there’s nothing unusual about this kind of bikers vs everyone drama, especially on the Internet: browse the comments section beneath a bike-related article on almost any broad-reaching publication, and you’ll find that few topics besides Israel, healthcare and gun control stir up as much debate.
What’s remarkable is that Simon should’ve known better. An experienced reporter with a sterling reputation for fairness, he’s one of the last people you’d expect to engage in this sort of stereotyping. And yet something made it OK for him to veer from fact into conjecture when talking about some people riding their bikes, in a way that would’ve been unimaginable in describing a professional, economic, ethnic or gender group.
Nothing really ‘pisses off‘ cyclists so much having someone verbally question them as a ‘class‘ in a manner not unlike what they do to motorists. All that you have to do Scott is visit the ChainLink and look for references to motorists and pedestrians. The latter they consider ‘idiots‘ and the former are essentially ‘Nazis on four wheels‘ especially if caught driving a high-end German vehicle. So indeed when you muse about them openly ‘it gets their panties in a twist‘.
But here is what I suggest. Keep musing openly. These folks are the very essence of the WIM Project. ‘Woe Is Me‘ should be printed on a ChainLink jersey and sold to anyone who feels like ‘they are carrying the weight of the world on their rack‘. Everybody including pedestrians are seen as a threat to them. Why? I guess we will just have to wait for them to divulge that bit of logic.
But you are clearly correct in their behavior being almost universally that of the Scofflaw Society. But as with George Orwell‘s universe all you need to do is redefine the law itself as ‘silly‘ and project your chosen mode of transportation as not being covered by a law which applies to everyone else but you and voila you have the ‘Idaho Stop Law‘ to brandish anytime someone observes you breaking the law reserved of course for everyone else. It’s more a matter of thinking like the Queen of Hearts and that seems to come easy to both Alice In Wonderland fans and Urban Cyclists.
Continue to ‘call a spade a spade‘ my friend. The world needs more plain-speaking individuals. These folks are less cyclists than they are activists. They give the rest of us a ‘bad name‘.