A Teachable Moment: Playing In An Orchestra

Background Reading


Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

Jeff Roberson/Associated Press


It would seem that the #BlackLivesMatter movement has come up against a situation encountered by the Urban Cycling Movement as well. The problem is how to reframe the question of your treatment without sounding like an ‘elite‘ whose only concern is personal.

In a recent episode of Chicago Fire a wealthy couple discovers that their surrogate mother has been in a serious elevated train accident is suffering from brain swelling that could progress to the point that she dies. The conflict for the couple who has died the surrogate is that they had her sign a contract which gives them power-of-attorney in even life or death situations. And of course the couple is struggling with possibly having to make a decision that saves the baby but allows the mother to die.

The viewer is torn between thinking that the couple is being selfish to want a fetus saved over the life of the woman bearing it and concern for their predicament. The fetus represents the last best hope the couple has to parent a child of their own.

This is a choice that no one would or in fact should have to make because of the conflicting concerns one would have to make. Whose life is more valuable, that of the surrogate mother or the child?

‘Victimhood’ Is The Social Currency Of Our Day

Movements are reliant on generating sympathy for their members and by extension for the movement itself. The Urban Cycling Movement is wondering aloud why they get as little ‘respect‘ as they do. When a cyclist dies in a collision with an automobile driven by a person DUI and gets at most 3 months of incarceration it seems a ‘slap in the face‘. And yet the same sort of treatment occurs when a cyclist hits and kills a pedestrian in the crosswalk. Do we complain that the cyclist should have gotten a harsher sentence? Probably not. We seem to have a great deal of difficulty with self-examination.

Likewise, when the #BlackLivesMatter group is confronted by the kind of Black-On-Black crime that we experience almost daily in Chicago it seems that the only direction to pursue is to complain about the lack of action of the police. It is never the case that black gang members get the kind of denunciation from #BlackLivesMatter that they so richly deserve. So it is difficult for outsiders looking in to decide whether it is best to save the baby or the surrogate mother.

Some members of the Urban Cycling Movement see a similar problem evolving for themselves. You have cyclists who clearly do not follow the laws and yet demand that others on the roadway be compelled to do what they themselves will not. Outsiders are dismayed. Insiders are fretting over the degree of re-branding that they feel is needed to once again position themselves as the ‘victims‘.

With your ‘victimhood‘ firmly secured your journalistic lapdogs can run amok point the fang at this or that ‘predator‘ feasting on the flesh of hapless cycling victims. They can of course write reams of tear-jerking commentary about the latest ‘Dooring‘ without ever having to consider why the cyclist was traveling in the ‘Door Zone‘ at speeds inconsistent with executing a life-saving panic stop. Or for that matter why few if any cyclists are even taught how to execute a panic stop on an upright bicycle.

The Solution Is Not One Of ‘Re-Branding’ But Rather ‘Rethinking’

First and foremost our transportation network is a ‘musical work‘. The people who use it are members of an ‘orchestra‘. Together we can make that ride to work or to the grocery store a thing of beauty and exhilaration. But when we miss our beat or ignore the ‘sheet music‘ in front of us the ‘audience‘ experiences a cacophony of sound that is unpleasant.

Part of the problem with this orchestra is that various sections feel themselves overlooked. The vast majority of the musicians are violinists. So they feel that their sound is preeminent. The folks playing triangles are less than one percent of the total orchestra membership. And yet when a triangle must sound out it must do so with all the precision of the violins otherwise the musical piece suffers.

The violinists pay hundred if not thousands of dollars for their instruments. Some of them are priceless. But the lowly triangle is cheap by comparison and the performers playing it need only concern themselves with striking it ‘on time‘. This is essential the kind of problem being faced on roadways each day.

We need to make music using various instruments and yet we find it difficult to submerge our egos long enough to follow the conductor as together we perform a work of genius. There is no doubt that the violins are essential to the piece if for no other reason than that they play longer and more difficult passages. But if the triangle players miss their cue the piece fails at some level.

Whose Instrument Is More Vital?

Considered as a whole all of the instruments and their players are vital. You cannot take some away and hope to have a performance that inspires the audience. But the fact is that if the most expensive triangle in the orchestra is stolen its theft pales in comparison to the theft of the violin owned by the concertmeister. Is that fair? No.

So before we can play as an orchestra we must all refocus our attention on the piece being played and not just the notes we play during a performance. But it is probably beyond the empathetic efforts to hope that all the members of the orchestra will view their fellows as important to the outcome of the performance as are they. Humans are conceited.

We Amplify Our Differences To Gain Greater Social Currency

Before we can ever hope to work in concert on our roadways as cyclists and motorists and pedestrians, we will have to be willing to concede that no part is of greater importance than the whole. Likewise no part is a ‘greater victim‘ than any other.

The problem is not that we need ‘re-branding‘ we need instead a widening of the scope of our concern. The musical piece that our human orchestra is playing should be the focus. Our part in the performance is in support of that piece, no more, no less. But the truly mind-blowing realization comes when the consider the fact that none of the musicians is expendable, not a single one.