Cyclists, drivers, and the limits of understanding

Three men, two bicycles, from the State Library of Victoria on Flickr. (License)

If there is a difference between cyclists and drivers, it’s this: we cyclists are mostly also drivers. The same can’t be said in the other direction; most drivers are not also cyclists.

This difference matters because it affects the way we view each other. When a cyclist sees a motorist do something stupid, we are more likely to view them first as an individual. We do not see them as representative of a tribe of mysterious beings who engage in strange rituals designed just to cause us inconvenience and frustration.

We do not turn to all other drivers and hold them responsible for the actions of the crazy lady who just ran the red light. Or the hoon who just road-raged his way down Albany highway. A selfish, angry clown, yes. But we know that the problem isn’t Drivers in general; it’s not even Young Male Drivers. It was that guy, in that car.

And because we too are drivers we understand that maybe the crazy lady was having a shocking day, late to a job interview, or just made a plain old dumb mistake, like any of us can. Dumb, but not evil. On any other day, it could have been me.

There is no magic power in this, except that of a shared experience giving birth to a shared understanding.

Maybe there’s something to learn here about how enthusiastic we are to starting viewing people as Other, how the slightest difference in experience and life choice can start to put a wall around our ability to see individuals worthy of empathy, potential recipients of the benefit of our doubt.

We can do better, though. We have to. It would be truly horrible if we meekly accepted such a deflated boundary on something as important as empathy.

What I’m seeing across all media, social and traditional, is a tendency to magnify the differences between groups of people and stoke the fires of outrage. That’s not helpful; it increases societal friction, all in the name of clicks and eyeballs. It’s something we need to resist; and the resistance starts inside each of us.

Those truck-drivers, though. Pack of selfish animals, eh? Should get off the roads…

Note: this is a modified version of a post I originally wrote for Facebook.

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