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 by: Bill Oetinger  4/1/2015

A Teachable Moment

When I was in early elementary school, probably around second or third grade, my teacher caught me passing notes in class. I can't recall what was in the notes, but it was considered a serious enough offense that my mother was called. In sorting out the little problem later, my wise mother gave me a piece of advice I have always remembered: "Never write anything down that you wouldn't want the whole world to read."

Those words of wisdom, which were true when I was a boy, are even more to the point in our current age of the internet and social media, with more-or-less instant and constant connections for all of us…at least all of us with computers or smart phones.

But what, you may ask, does this have to do with bicycles? I will tell you…

You may have already heard about this, as it was a newsy little tempest in a teapot last week. There was a well-written front page article in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat about it on March 17. I cannot now provide a link to the article because they appear to have removed it from their archive. So I will have to summarize.

A bit over a week ago, a local merchant in Sebastopol—a purveyor of high-end "boutique" meats—posted a blog at his company's website that was a long, rambling rant about how he really hates cyclists. I can't provide a link to that blog either because it too was removed. Why it was removed will become clear presently. But I do have a full transcript of the blog and can quote from it.

The author—the owner of the meat company—later claimed that his blog was meant to be "snarky and sarcastic" (that is: funny), but it fell well short of that mark for most people. It was a fairly predictable litany of all the things bike haters say about bikes and bikers. If you've been a cyclist for more than a few months, you will have encountered all this and probably worse, either in person, out on the road, or in some "Comments" section on the web, pursuant upon a bikes-related news item. It's nothing new, although the common familiarity of the attacks doesn't make them any less aggravating.

What made this particular diatribe stand out from so many of the same ilk were two things: the writer essentially advocated violence against cyclists and he did so on his own company's web page, signed with his own name.

Culled from amid many paragraphs of ridiculous insults and snide condescension are these words which, in the view of many readers, rose to the level of advocating violence: I have some suggestions for these Tour de Speedbump contestants. First, anyone not in single file and/or on the right side of the solid white line is fair game. And, on that note, all of them should be required to have license plates and carry insurance… That way I would be more apt to call Jonny Law and report them rather than resorting to my only other option- running them off the road." (My highlighting added.)

One of the most frustrating aspects of the abuse heaped on cyclists, including actual violence, is our inability to fight back or to seek redress in any form. If it happens out on the road, the driver almost always gets away, while the cyclist fumes or picks himself up out of the ditch, etc. If it happens on the web, with some dimwitted name-calling, most often the senders hide behind a wall of anonymity, cloaking enough of their ID so we can't "out" them and confront them in the real world. Most of the time, most cyclists have to accept that. Get over it…move on. But every so often, one of the haters blows his cover…

It only took a day or two for folks to notice this blog at an obscure website otherwise devoted to promoting the guy's boutique meat business. And at that point, the fuse was lit. The blood was in the water. People started posting links to the blog at cycling sites all over the place. Then the scathing replies began pouring in on Facebook or at review sites like Yelp!. Within 24 hours, the whole thing had blown up into a crackling bonfire of protest. People noted links at his site to the various stores and farmers' markets where he plies his trade. They wrote to those stores and markets, sharing the link and asking: "is this the image you want to present to your customers (many of whom are cyclists or friends of cyclists)?" The stores—especially a prominent supermarket in Sebastopol—responded by vehemently distancing themselves from the sentiments in the blog and by considering whether to terminate or alter their relationship with the vendor.

At this point, if you're a compassionate and perhaps a naive person, it's almost possible to start feeling sorry for this dope. He had vented about his frustrations with cyclists and had done so in terms that were pretty well beyond the pale. He should have taken his personal demons out for a walk in private, then hit "Delete." But he didn't. He hit "Send." Within about 48 hours of posting the blog, his world had flipped upside down. Instead of being a hopeful, earnest entrepreneur with a good product in a nice region of Northern California, trying to live life the right way, he had become a large-scale villain, flamed far and wide. His pride was no doubt badly dented, but more importantly, he was contemplating the very real prospect that he had just put himself out of business, and all for the momentary gratification of indulging in some stupid foaming rant.

He quickly put up an apology at the site, right above the offending blog. But within an hour or so, the apology and the blog were gone from the site, and attempts to track the page down, using the WayBack Machine, hit a wall. Whoever manages his website knew enough to lock the page up where it could not easily be retrieved. But the cat was already out of the bag: many people had copied his copy and posted it elsewhere. There was no way to make the message go away, no way to un-ring that bell.

Now, in the page's place is what appears to be a heartfelt apology. Not only an apology but an apparently sincere change of heart. He had heard from many cyclists about the injuries inflicted on them by aggressive motorists and he professed to have had no idea, etc. He met with cyclists and they had long, heart-to-heart conversations. He now claims to have an entirely new view of those folks on two wheels in the funny spandex clothing with whom he is expected to share the road.

The folks in spandex seem evenly divided on whether they're buying his change of heart and apology. Many people—and I include myself in this group—are willing to accept that he has learned a lesson the hard way—the teachable moment—and we are now willing to, if not fully forgive him, at least to move on. Many others aren't convinced by his self-proclaimed conversion. They see it as the damage control of a desperate man trying to salvage what's left of whatever good will he may have had in the community.

In spite of my references to the missing links at the Press Democrat site and at the blogger's site, you will notice that I have not named the blogger nor posted any links by which you could easily track him down. If you're interested enough and if you haven't already been plugged into this thread elsewhere, I'm sure you can google your way to all the details in no time flat. I have no desire to hang this particular guy out to dry. Regardless of whether his change of heart is genuine or merely expedient, I feel he's been well and truly spanked and has learned his lesson. (His lesson may be, "try to be more tolerant of the cyclists you meet out there" or it may be, "keep you mouth shut." Either way, it's a step in the right direction.)

No, I have other, bigger fish to fry than just this silly fellow and his ill-considered blog. This little bonfire has reminded me of a new truth in our society. It's one we encounter every day if we are at least half awake to what's going on around us. George Orwell had it only partly right with his futuristic vision when he said, "Big Brother is Watching You." He was spot on about government and corporations spying on us in our private lives. He got that part right. But he didn't anticipate the internet and the personal computer and all their myriad spawn, from Facebook to Twitter, from SnapChat to Meerkat, from I-Phone to e-mail. Not only is Big Brother watching us, we are all watching ourselves, everywhere, all the time.

What it amounts to is that we all now live in glass houses so we should none of us be throwing stones around or doing things in our glass houses we wouldn't want the whole world to see. This hapless blogger, this bike basher, learned this like a smack from a cinder block upside his head. He stuck a short stick in a large hornets' nest when he tackled the cycling community and pushed their pet buttons. It's a lesson we all ought to have absorbed by now: that anything you say in any public forum—and that means pretty much everything—has the potential to go viral. Ditto with what you do. If you do it anywhere there might be a person with a smart phone that can do video, then you had best behave yourself. (Just ask Mitt Romney or the boys on the SAE bus.)

And with this constant surveillance and microscopic scrutiny of every aspect of our lives together comes a heightened level of what we might call the common good. It's like turning on the light in a funky kitchen: all the cockroaches scurry for the dark corners. When the bright light of 24/7 internet transparency shines on bad behavior, society learns about it right now and reacts, in general, with a strong dose of disapprobation. Some might bemoan this overzealous political correctness. I might even agree, now and then. But overall, it's a good thing to have bad behavior brought to light, for all to see and to judge. This goes not only for bike-baiting bloggers but for idiot frat boys and for the cops who have been found with racist e-mails on their work computers. When disgusting crap like this surfaces, we see it and we smack it, early and often.

You could say that our blogger at least had the courage of his convictions to post his vile bile on his own website. Or you could say he was just dumb to do it. I don't think it was either. If I may presume to read his mind, I think he really felt that the point of view he was putting into print was the proper, mainstream point of view shared by the majority of people in his world. (And for sure, he does have his supporters.) He wasn't concerned about any pushback from society in general because he was certain almost everyone would agree with him. That is the big lesson we can take away from this, the real teachable moment: that if you stop listening to your own inner demons and stick your head out the window and take in the wider world, you might discover that the world has moved on without you. In this case, you might discover that it is no longer the mainstream, accepted point of view to insult and harass and persecute cyclists. It may have been considered good sport or amusing a few years ago, but it now has all the charm and correctness of lynchings and gay bashing and violence against women.

I would be terminally naive if I thought we had turned the corner on this sort of nonsense. But I do think we can see that corner up the road a ways. And with the help of the constant vigilance that springs from the social media, we are getting closer all the time to a world where that sort of ignorant arrogance cannot survive the bright light of public censure. With cyclists wearing helmet cams or at least carrying cell phones, the chances of getting away with road rage violence will start to diminish. And with the hornets' nest of public reproach that will greet such stupid blogs, you have to figure the message will eventually sink in.

Getting the message well and truly imprinted in society's cultural mindset is the holy grail here. Nailing one blogger or one road rage bully is all well and good, but the real goal is to move the conversation along: to keep chipping away at those old prejudices and shifting things to a better, broader understanding…where no one would think it correct behavior to write such a blog.

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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