By Stan Purdum While reading a research report having nothing to do with cycling, I saw a connection to cycling nonetheless.
The report, titled, “Why good people turn bad online,” was about viciousness and harassment on social media and how to reduce it. Researchers studying that bad conduct have concluded that abusive language is not just the work of sociopaths online, whom we call trolls. Rather, much of it is from ordinary people engaging in antisocial behavior.
Here’s a pertinent excerpt: “So is there something about online social media culture that makes some people behave meanly? Unlike ancient hunter-gatherer societies, which rely on cooperation and sharing to survive and often have rules for when to offer food to whom across their social network, social media have weak institutions. They offer physical distance, relative anonymity and little reputational or punitive risk for bad behavior: if you’re mean, no one you know is going to see.”
In short, the anonymity of internet interactions and the low reputational costs of being mean online make it easy for even normally decent people to act badly.
That’s where the report connected to cycling for me. All of us who pedal on roads have had passing motorists shout obscenities, scream at us to get off the road, deliberately swerve dangerously close, or even throw things at us (including once, in my case, a lit cherry bomb that exploded in the air directly behind me).
Some of the offenders are teenage boys, showing off for buddies in the car, but others are adults -a few of whom probably are sociopaths. But most are likely ordinary people acting like jerks (the cycling equivalent of “trolls”), perhaps having had a difficult day or trouble at work or at home. (Regarding online meanness, the research found that mood is a big contributor: “If you’re having a bad day, or if it happens to be Monday, for example, you’re much more likely to troll in the same situation [where you might not otherwise]. … You’re nicer on a Saturday morning.”)
Being in vehicles, harassers on the road can remain anonymous and speed quickly away after their “daring” deed with little fear of damage to their reputation or punishment for their ugly or even injurious deportment. Would they act so badly toward cyclists if other people were watching and they had no ready escape? Probably not, but meanness isn’t limited to online venues.
Be The “Bot”
Regarding the online nastiness, the researchers seem to have found at least a partial solution. One experiment showed that the level of racist abuse fired at black users could be dramatically slashed by using bot accounts with white profile images. When racist tweets were posted, one of these bots would respond with something like, “Hey man, just remember that there are real people who are hurt when you harass them with that kind of language.” The report said, “Simply cultivating a little empathy in such tweeters reduced their racist tweets almost to zero for weeks afterwards.”
There’s probably no way to translate that practice to cycling; most vehicle-based harassers don’t hang around long enough for us to cultivate any empathy in them toward us. They don’t seem interested in knowing us personally in any case. But perhaps we can be the “bot” that keeps these on-the-road situations from ramping up by not responding to the vitriol. That can be important because there’s a contagion to expressed outrage.
According to the report, “messages with both moral and emotional words are more likely to spread on social media – each moral or emotional word in a tweet increases the likelihood of it being retweeted by 20 percent. Content that triggers outrage and that expresses outrage is much more likely to be shared ….”
Applying that to cycling, I take that to mean that when a rider responds with expressed anger to the harassment from a motorist, it increases the likelihood of further aggression from the motorist. So if I shoot the upraised middle finger at a bad-behaving driver, I up the ante; and if he doesn’t come back at me, he may take it out on the next cyclist he passes.
Let It Go
I thought about that while reading two recent news reports. One concerned a cyclist in Portland, Oregon, who had a Lexus swerve in front of his bike, with the driver yelling “Get out of the road!” The rider yelled back, and the driver responded with obscenities and hand gestures. The rider did the same toward the driver. The driver then stopped and sucker-punched the rider, breaking his jaw. He then drove off.
The other story was about pro-cyclist Daniel Martinez, a Columbian rider on a training ride in Italy with two teammates. When a driver passed and nearly struck the three riders, Martinez yelled at him. The driver stopped, got out of his car, and proceeded to assault Martinez and another teammate. He knocked Martinez out and broke the other guy’s lip before hopping back in his car and fleeing the scene. Martinez ended up in the hospital and with amnesia-like symptoms.
As we know, in almost any encounter with a motorist, the cyclist is at a big disadvantage and is likely to come out the loser. It can be hard to be the bot on the bike and not express our own anger at mean or inconsiderate drivers, but there seems to be wisdom in not escalating the situation and in letting go of the desire to fire back.
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Stan Purdum has ridden several long-distance bike trips, including an across-America ride recounted in his book Roll Around Heaven All Day, and a trek on U.S. 62, from Niagara Falls, New York, to El Paso, Texas, the subject of his book Playing in Traffic. Stan, a freelance writer and editor, and Methodist minister, lives in New Jersey. See more at www.StanPurdum.com.