Saturday, December 12, 2009

Road Anti-Rage, or We Will Meet Your Physical Force with Soul Force

There's no dearth of guides on how to ride a bicycle in a city -- on safe urban cycling practices, legal rights on the road, even how to cope when there's an accident.

This is not a how-to of any of the types listed above. This concerns how to talk to drivers, and how to engender their goodwill by displaying goodwill ourselves. This is a method for road anti-rage.

Though this method applies to the most extreme cases, and certainly must hold up in their light given the recent case with Dr. Thompson, I mean it primarily as a way of everyday riding and interaction. We must use nonviolence in each and every interaction we have on the streets. Every single day we face honking, yelling, dangerously close passing, purposeful braking, and buses buzzing us. Most drivers mean no harm. Some do. Most, we are confident, are ignorant of our perspective, and ignorant of how vulnerable we really are and all the dangers we face.

Ultimately, drivers control the heavy weaponry and they will win in any violent contest. What I am suggesting is that we embrace the fact that we are weak and a minority, and we champion the very vulnerability that often fills us with fear. If we take a principled stand against violence, we will always win.

Many of us bike because of our principles. Perhaps we want to take a stand against wars for oil, environmental degradation, and an automobile industry that shrugs at fatality counts. Or we want to see and engage with our city and our neighbors. Or we want to take charge of our health and body. For whatever reason, when we bike, we endure some unpleasant situations in the name of these principles, these commitments.

The issue of road rage and how we respond to it is then essentially an issue of how a principled movement should respond to violence. We must draw on the nonviolent tradition, the same tradition that peacefully overturned dictatorships in countless countries. The methods and philosophy of nonviolence gained civil rights in the U.S. It is a method that has proven to win remarkably. More important than that, though, we must adhere to nonviolence if we are ever to achieve more peaceful, civil, and humane roads, and that's the goal for which we all strive.

Then I say, let us do away with the finger and with retaliation. Those are violent responses. Let us do more than put away the finger. Let us also refuse to hate the drivers that act violently towards us.

To be specific, I am suggesting that:
  • When we are honked at, we nod humbly.
  • When we are yelled at, we respond with calm.
  • When we are passed closely and want to either fight or flee, we must engage in discussion with humanity and love.
Here's a rough template for how such an interaction would proceed:

  1. Unsafe, unpleasant, or hostile encounter with motorist
  2. Assume that motorist is a well-intentioned, good (but maybe ignorant) human being. This assumption shows on your face as you treat the motorist with kindness and respect. Empathize with the motorist.
  3. Attempt to find a moment to interact. This may occur naturally, at a light. Or, you can yell, "Do you have a minute?" Motorists usually don't. They're especially unlikely to pull over if you show even a hint of defensiveness. But I've had some success with a genuine entreaty to have a conversation. For example, I'll say, "If you have a minute, I'd be happy to explain to you why I have to take that lane position."
  4. Kindly explain why you were riding where you were riding. (Note that (4) requires you to be conscious in your riding style and choices, and confident in them. If you're rude or unjustified in the way you ride, this method won't work.) Some kind explanations can reference the law, but none focus on it. When interacting with a neighbor in a civil fashion, and searching for a way to share the road, the law becomes beside the point. Technically, yes, the law can keep us safe, but its not adequate as a guide for how to interact as citizens and human beings sharing space.
  5. Kindly explain how the motorist's actions affect you. For example, "When you pass me so closely, it makes me feel very afraid." Readily admit fear and vulnerability. These are truths of our lives when we ride bikes.
  6. State your needs offer the motorist a suggestion for how to meet your needs For example, "I need more room in the lane in order to feel safe. Would you be willing to pass bicyclists while giving us half a lane to comfortably ride in? I'd really appreciate it."
  7. End by reiterating that you're cooperative and friendly. "Well - no harm meant on my end. I just want to get to work on time. Thanks for listening, take care!"
  8. Just as it is important to learn how to state our feelings, thoughts, and fears without making judgment or using violent language, it is also crucial that we remain open to the driver's needs, thoughts, and feelings. Listen to what the driver might have to say. Listen for the fears or feelings driving their communication, even if the words come out as harsh or defensive. Acknowledge that motorists also need a safe space to drive.

It might be infuriating to consider this approach when so often motorists carelessly endanger our lives. But I'd argue that if we really want our interactions with them to increase our safety and make the world a better place, then we have to keep our side of the street clean, act like the upstanding citizens we are, and kill them with kindness.

I realized some time ago that my ultimate goal was mutual understanding with motorists. So I started practicing. For example, a driver would lay on the horn for a block, then pass me very closely, yelling "sidewalk!" and zoom away. We'd meet again at the intersection. I assume, going into this encounter, that this is a person, a human, with whom I can empathize. I show that assumption on my face. I say, hello. Usually I am greeted with what I perceive as disgust and anger. The motorist may expect a fight. But if I can remain calm, explain my perspective, and remain open to the motorist, we usually end the conversation on a good note. A much better note, at any rate, than if I tried to argue with them.

Martin Luther King said, Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.

For all the attention that's been paid to the most minute questions of legality and safety, very little attention has been paid to how we interact with others on the road. In the absence of this attention we're left with crude advice and cruder instincts. This is an attempt to draw on the most old-school, time-tested philosophy of movements for social change. It takes the rage part of road-rage seriously and doesn't shy from the spiritual. So I'll end this post with a quote from the preacher of all preachers:

So in many instances, we have been able to stand before the most violent opponents and say in substance, we will meet your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you.

Throw us in jail and we will still love you. Threaten our children and bomb our homes and our churches and as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hours and drag us out on some wayside road and beat us and leave us half-dead, and as difficult as that is, we will still love you. But be assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves, we will so appeal to your heart and your conscience that we will win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.

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