If you’ve been following this blog for a little while you may already have picked up that I am both a cyclist and a feminist. Looking back, I became a cyclist about a year before I became a feminist. My very first really angry street harassment rant that precipitated my discovery that I was a feminist was back in 2007 on my LiveJournal, and was prompted by being street harassed 5 times in one day while out on my bike.
I discussed in my previous post how I ended up posting less and less about street harassment and feminism, despite it being a subject about which I was very passionate, simply because I couldn’t deal very well with the sheer numbers of comments along the lines of
“Not ALL men are like this…”
“I’ve never seen anyone do that…”
“I got groped in a club once so women do it too…”
“It was probably a compliment…”
“Maybe you shouldn’t wear low cut tops…”
“My girlfriend says this happens to her a lot but it never happens when she’s out with me…”
Trust me. I have heard ALL of these before. REPEATEDLY. None of them are good arguments. All of them are deeply frustrating; particularly as they are usually said by guys who I generally think of as pretty nice blokes. Good sorts, who are on ‘my side’ when it comes to thinking women are just as good at life as men and therefore deserve a fair shot at it. But what comments like these do is, at best, derail the point I’m trying to make by niggling over semantics or, at worst, completely deny my lived experience. I struggled to argue and debate the points raised and after a while grew so very tired of having the same discussion over and over AND OVER again. When you are shaking with anger because for the 5th time in a week a random man has said “smile darling” you are really not in the mood for calmly educating someone for the 30th time why this isn’t ok. So over time I just stopped posting.
This week I posted link to an interesting article about cyclists cycling in the middle of the road. It prompted a number of comments from acquaintances who drive using my post as a platform to inform me that they hated cyclists because they go through red lights, and ride on the pavements, and hold them up. Several quoted various clauses from the highway code to counter the idea that cyclists might possibly have an equal right to be on the road as them (this argument boiled down to ‘we’re faster so you have to let us pass’). I dealt with this very badly. I got upset, frustrated and had to back right out of the thread before I told them exactly where they could shove their dipsticks.
Being an overthinking sort of person, I had a long ponder (after I’d had a cup of tea and some chocolate and a bit of a stamp around the house saying AND ANOTHER THING but to the cat rather than the people on the internet and therefore calmed down a bit) about why it was I had reacted with such frustration, anger and irritation. I realised that the overall tone had made me feel exactly the same way I felt when I posted about street harassment. The comments were the same ones I always hear when I post about a near miss on my bike, or when I witness some truly dreadful dangerous driving; cyclists somehow ‘deserve it’ because of the behaviour of ‘those other cyclists”.
“I’ve never run a red light…”
“I always give cyclists room…”
“I saw a cyclist yesterday going through a red light…”
“You were probably in his way…”
“Maybe you should wear a helmet…”
I’d heard them all before, and debated them all before, and countered them all before, and PEOPLE WERE STILL GOING ON ABOUT IT. So I got cross and disengaged.
What interested me, once I’d calmed down and re-read the comments, is that these commenters had inadvertently pushed the anger and frustration back onto the cyclist, in the same way that the negative comments on an article about street harassment can push back against women’s experiences. The writer feels unheard and frustrated, the commenters feel misunderstood and attacked.
When I am cut up on my bike by a dangerous driver, I don’t assume that all drivers are dangerous. But perhaps when I discuss this I I make drivers feel as though I am attacking them. They react with their frustrations about ‘bloody cyclists’ and that they are not one of ‘those drivers’ and so I then feel like they are attacking me – after all I am a cyclist – so I take great pains to point out I am not one of ‘those cyclists’ and thus we end up back in our infinite loop of mutual frustration.
The common enemy here, for us ‘not those cyclists’ and those ‘not those drivers’ is of course ‘those ones’. The bad road users that made the rest of us look bad. I shouldn’t pick fights or have long debates over semantics with a driver who uses the road well and is respectful to cyclists and that driver shouldn’t squabble with me; we actually all agree that bad road users suck. The same rings true for those men making defensive comments on articles about feminism. The ‘enemy’ here is not the woman raising the problems she faces on a daily basis. The ‘enemy’ are ‘those men’ which are giving the majority of men (who would never even consider going ‘smile darling’ or ‘show us your tits’ to a woman on street) a bad name.
Looking back to my last post about cycling I’d made the point (in my typically rather longwinded way) that just SOME road users being shit is not an argument against improving the infrastructure for ALL road users. We ALL agree that shitty behaviour is shit behaviour. So perhaps instead of having these repetitive and cyclical arguments amongst ourselves we need to recognise the real enemy and join forces against that; be it a poor road infrastructure and road use culture that encourages bad driving and dangerous cycling or be it a patriarchal society that tells men they must be tough and never cry and tells women that ‘oi nice tits’ is a compliment.
If you are a member of (x majority group) and you find yourself angered by something someone from (x marginalised group) raises, before you respond ask yourself this: Are you really angry/hurt by the words or actions of (x marginalised person) or are you angered by the actions of the (x majority person) that has reflected badly on yourself? If the answer is the latter, consider being an ally, rather than an adversary.
It’s very easy to debate and belittle the experiences of a minority or marginalised group; and it’s easy to shut down that debate by saying “well I am (x marginalised group) and you are (x majority group) so you wouldn’t understand”. It’s much harder to step outside of those well travelled debates and realise the common interest to become allies, but perhaps it’s the best way to effect real change in an unequal society.