Quick bit of metaphor-mongering

The “motoring lobby” constantly gestures towards its vast conscript army – the people who have to drive because that is the line of least resistance. Conscripts are not necessarily enthusiastic about their task and some are positively disaffected – is there a space to encourage desertion?


Language #5 “anti-car”

I really don’t understand what “anti-car” is supposed to mean. This puzzling term is often used in a sentence which starts: “I’m not anti-car but …” and which then proceeds to explain why it would be a really good idea if there was much less private motoring, or why road-pricing makes sense, or why free-parking is a bad thing or why a strong pro-cycling policy would improve the quality of life or whatever. Sometimes the term “anti-car” is thrown as an accusation – as if it makes a valid point all on its own with no explanation necessary “This legislation is anti-car”. So what if it is? That could be good or bad, depending on lots of other things. Surely it’s a neutral term?

Anyway, I propose that we stop repeating this “I am not anti-car” mantra. Just ignore the term – neither deny nor embrace it. If we use the term – even to deny it – we are giving it some sort of legitimacy and hence implicitly buying into a set of unnoticed assumptions – assumptions that the way personal transport has ended up being is actually the way that it has to be, assumptions that there is something natural or unchangeable about what I’m afraid we are just going to have to call car culture or the hegemony of the private motor vehicle.

Language #4 motorists v people-who-drive-cars

Following on from the previous post …

I think calling people-in-cars “people in cars” (rather than “motorists”) is slightly more useful than calling people-on-bikes “people on bikes” (rather than “cyclists”).

“Motorist” is more often used rhetorically as an appeal to solidarity in a way that “cyclist” is not – as in “stopping the war on the motorist” “this will hurt the motorist!” etc etc. Yet because of the ubiquity of driving, it is much less likely that any given individual in a car has any sort of serious “identity” that is built around driving. Many (most) people just go along with what society has made it easiest for them to do … (see the Gillian Anable research on attitudes to car use).

So perhaps better not to use a term that implies people do have some sort of meaningful identity as a “motorist” when they most likely do not? Spelling things out in this rather pedantic way might tend to emphasise the fact that we all make a variety of transport choices.

Language #3 Cyclists v People-who-ride-bikes

The idea here is that “cyclist” is not just a neutral word for a person on a bike. Instead, all sorts of extra meanings have become attached to it.

For certain people it has become a sort of horrid boo-word. “Cyclists” are those vile people who hold you up on the way to work, those demanding brats who are indulged with cycle paths and then don’t use them. “Cyclists” are endlessly whinging highway incompetents. “Cyclists” wear funny clothes, don’t pay enough tax, yada yada yada.

For certain other people, “cyclist” is a wholly positive term. It is what the sociologists call an “identity” – identity is part of “who you are” and threats to identity are painful and will be resisted.

For example, the lovely Dave Horton has recently suggested that if everyday utility cycling becomes the norm in the UK, then perhaps some current “cycling identities” will no longer be viable, because they are founded on cycling being a bit of a struggle, on those who cycle against the odds being rather heroic. Riding a bike won’t be special anymore. Being a reflective social scientist, he is aware that he has mixed feelings about this and can deal with them. Perhaps others cannot and perhaps identity-threat is involved in some of the vicious infighting which I gather has been a long-standing feature of the UK cycle-advocacy scene?

Anyway, to go back to language, the thing is that the word “cyclist”, in the current linguistic environment, suggests membership of a some sort of “group” and whether stigmatized or lauded it is a minority group. This is not what we want – what we want is cycling to become more like walking. It is rare for someone to have an identity as a “pedestrian” – I used to identify strongly as a “walker” but I’d never have called myself a “hardcore pedestrian” – it is not a real category, it’s just what everyone does when they’re not doing something else.

Even as things stand, a few minutes observation of the roads of central Bristol show that even now not everyone who pedals past is a “cyclist”. Saddles at the wrong height, gears all over the place, flapping trouser legs, bearings just screaming for some lube – there are clearly plenty of bikes whose owners regard them as mere transport rather than members of the family.


Yup. “People who ride bikes” is in many cases the phrase to use in preference to “cyclists”. However, there are probably more important verbal tweaks. Ding! Next!

Language #2 Is it worth bothering?

Cardiff_station_181112This is following on from the previous post which was a short comment on the fact that “sustainable” had lost its meaning and a resolution to follow Jarrett Walker’s example and use the word “durable” (partly coz it just sounds so damn rugged).

I’ve got a number of “what’s the right word to use” questions to examine, but before I do, I want to ask “just how much this is worth bothering with?” because the exact relationship between language and thought is a tricky question. After a short and inadequate discussion I shall come to a not-very-exiting conclusion, which urges you to do nothing very difficult.

Choice of language does make a difference

Here’s the gist of one of the famous experiments of the psychologist, Elizabeth Loftus. Participants watched some short films of car collisions. They were then asked about the events in the film. The key question which the experimenters were interested in was given to participants in slightly different versions, to see if their memory/perception of the events were affected by different language.

The key question was “About how fast were the cars going when they [ something ] with each other?” The “something” was either “crashed” “collided” “bumped” “hit” or “contacted”. Well blow me down, the people asked about the cars “crashing” gave a significantly higher (almost 10 mph difference) estimate of speed than the people asked about cars “contacting”.

Like most psychological research of this kind it is subject to subtleties of interpretation. Did the differing estimates of speed indicate that participants actually had a different memory of the film or were their “estimates” a purely linguistic phenomenon and “40 mph” just popped out as an appropriate response to the English word “crash” with no reflection? Either way though, it clearly indicates that choice of language makes a difference. It is by no means unique – for example there is a standard experimental technique called priming. In its linguistic form it exploits the retinue of associations which are unique to each word in order to explore how we think. (The commonplace idea of “power of suggestion” might be described as using linguistic “primes”).

So yes, choice of words can do things to people heads. Well duh! No surprise at all, and therefore not pointless, as campaigners and advocates, to take a little bit of care to choose the right words to describe ourselves, what we do, what we want. If nothing else, using slightly non-standard terms might nudge a little bit of thinking in our audience. Maybe. Well it’s a cheap investment, so why not do it?

How much good will this do?

It is possible to go further, to make the claim that choice of words is very powerful indeed – that it is absolutely vital that we get it right. The idea that language in some sense determines thought and perception is popular amongst professional writers – Orwell’s essay Politics and the English language is a well-known example. The academic version is known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. What is the academic consensus? Let me quote the sociolinguist Deborah Cameron at you:

Most linguists and psychologist today are sceptical about the strong version of the Whorfian claim that language determines perceptions, but on the weaker claim that it can influence perceptions there is conflicting evidence. My own view is that language is a highly variable and radically context-dependant phenomenon which may have effects on perception, but only in conjunction with other factors. Linguistic conventions help to naturalize and reproduce certain beliefs and assumptions, but these are not necessarily dependant on language or ‘caused’ by it”
from: Verbal Hygiene (the politics of language)

Well quite.

My not-very-exciting conclusion

It’s worth paying some attention to our choice of language. It’s worth paying some attention to other peoples choice of language (for example “traffic” to mean “motor traffic”) because this indicates something about tacit assumptions. Deborah Cameron again:

…drawing attention to someone’s use of language is one way of making previously unremarked assumptions manifest to them; and this can on occasion be the first stage in changing their attitudes […]

Yes indeedy. But don’t get carried away – getting the words right won’t solve anything in itself. Fiddling with one’s use of language and making a fuss about other people choice of words, is, compared to the unpleasant and frustrating business of politics and campaigning, a relatively easy gig and …

…it is not so much that linguistic manipulation does not work at all, as that it cannot work in the totalizing way that both self-help gurus and Orwellians would like up to believe … the relationship between what I say and the effect I obtain is far from straightforward; neither my intentions nor my words can determine it absolutely

So, I am careful with my choice of language around transport because I think it helps. But I remain aware that there are other things I can do which will help more.

Here is an example of the sort of thing I try to do – it’s from Jarrett Walker (again):

if you mean “car,” say “car”

Here’s a simple thing that anyone can do to improve the prospects of sustainable transportation. When you hear a phrase that makes sense only from behind the wheel of a car, notice it, point it out, and don’t get drawn into saying it yourself. …
(full post here)

There. A simple and painless tweak in one’s behaviour that might have a small effect.

Language #1 “sustainable v durable”

Can I draw your attention to this post? It’s from Jarrett Walker’s blog, Human Transit and contains an amusing cartoon. Jarrett is an american “transit planner” and his blog is slightly technical, but I keep in touch with it because he does often have interesting things to say – he’s an interesting chap whose original background was in literature, apparently.

Anyway the point here is about the word “sustainable” and how it has become a fairly meaningless hooray-word. Jarrett suggests replacing it with “durable” which has not yet been overused. Furthermore, as it is rarely used in a greenish context, it might cause a brief pause for thought. I resolve to start using it forthwith!

Ok. Language. Yes. Just how important is it to use the right words? How much difference does our exact choice of words make? There will shortly follow a number of posts on whether it’s worth bothering to be use the right words, and what those “right words” might be.

Storing cars on the pavement

Grit dispenser

Hello again, dear imaginary reader. It’s the first of January. It’s a beautiful day here in Bristol, mild, sunny, still. And very quiet of course, being January first. Just the time for some idle psychological speculation.

Pavement parking. Oh dear, yes, sorry. So anyway, the background is that I live in an area with an eighteenth century street layout. The houses were built long before it was assumed that everyone would own a large personal conveyance and so the streets are lined on both sides with parked cars, many, or possibly most of which are parked, at least partly, on the pavement. This is a slow moving area, so walking in the middle of the street is not dangerous, but in places it is compulsory, which is annoying.

Pavement parking is a popular topic in the active travel blogosphere. Ugly, nuisance, potentially dangerous, blah blah blah. Yes, of course I’d agree.

Except that I think that if you tried to put any of these points to someone who has just parked their motor on the pavement you would be greeted with utter astonishment and incomprehension. What sort of reply would you get if you actually asked a few people – asked them very, very politely of course, because we are imagining real life here, not the internet, and we would actually like to be listened to and get an honest answer. I would anticipate the following categories of reply.

Answer one: “If I didn’t park on the pavement then other people wouldn’t be able to drive down the road because there isn’t any room. It’s obvious. Are you stoopid or something?”

Answer two: “Yes, oh, I know it’s awful and I do worry about the elderly and young mums with buggies, and I do try to do it as little as possible, but really, the roads are so narrow round here that if I didn’t park on the pavement then it wouldn’t be possible for anyone to drive through the area and what if there was a fire or someone needed an ambulance?”

Answer two is essentially the same as answer one but with added handwringing. And my point is? Implied assumptions. My imaginary interlocutors are quite right – if they are going to park in a built up area with narrow roads then the socially responsible thing to do is park on the pavement. There is, they think, no alternative. If I were to point out that there are at least two alternatives, one of which is to park somewhere else and the other of which is to not have a car at all, I would get more of the open-mouth treatment. These are both, currently, unthinkable. They need to be made thinkable.

Bit of philosophy for you

Here’s a thought.

Telling someone what they feel is offensive and insulting. If they say that they have a particular feeling, then who am I to know different? People are best placed to know their own inner lives.

But consider this. We have to respect people, but we don’t necessarily have to respect what they say. (You think you are what you say? Really?) It is possible to draw a distinction between experience and interpretation of that experience. Interpretations can be mistaken. We revise our interpretations all the time, often in the light of other experiences, sometimes as a result of someone else suggesting an alternative interpretation, sometimes spontaneously.

Two experiences we often hear: a driver says that cyclists who hold them up and get in the way, put everyone in danger and make travelling frustrating and stressful; a pedestrian says their life is made a misery by hooligans cycling on the pavement. Are these really accounts of their experience? Or are they interpretations of something else: an experience of feeling frustrated, stressed, frightened and angry. I wouldn’t doubt for a moment that those experiences are real. It would be offensive to suggest otherwise. I would (often) doubt their interpretation of these feelings. I’d say these were caused by a badly-designed urban environment with too many cars, given too much priority. Our lightning-fast, causally-hair-trigger brains link up the feelings, caused by a complicated system, with the simple sight of a few bicycles and interpret the feelings as being caused by the bikes.

Campaigning relevance?

Communication. Do not get drawn into mollifying peoples interpretations and respond with tutting about red-light jumping and pavement riding. Do not get drawn in refuting other peoples interpeations and respond with growling about speeding and pavement parking. So far as possible point at an alternative interpretation of experience of the unpleasantness of the traffic environment – and a very real and possible solution to it. How do we do all this ‘pointing’? I don’t know, I’m still working on it – but the thing is, don’t get sucked in to disputing someone else’s interpretation of the world, because it can sound as if you’re disputing their feelings. Don’t get drawn into fighting their self-chosen battles on their self-chosen battleground. Keep it cool.

Behaving like traffic

Our minds are amazing because they can do far, far more than they evolved to do (just look around you). Nevertheless that does not mean that they can do all these 21st century things easily, or particularly well, or with no practice. And the fact that the limits of our minds are to some extent unknown, does not mean that our minds are unlimited. ‘Evolutionary psychology’ gets laughed at, not because it suggests that we are in some ways constrained by our evolutionary history (of course we are), but because it can seem so over-confident in suggesting the precise ways in which it is so constrained. In other words, the criticism is not of the endeavour itself (provide behavioural explanations in an evolutionary framework) but of the flimsiness of some of the assertions which are presented as ‘findings’.

So with that in mind, let me try this one out on you.

Hom sap is a walker and runner. Natural selection has not had time to help us with the speeds now available to us from driving. So it is not unreasonable to suppose that our default behaviour in traffic of all kinds is in fact ‘walking behaviour’. That is to say, to drive (and to a much lesser extent, cycle), in order to cope with the extra danger created by speed, we need to have extra and/or different behaviour artificially trained into us (for example ‘mirror signal manoeuvre’ repeated endlessly during driving lessons). When that training slips or decays we will, by default, ‘behave like walkers’.

Continuing the ‘mirror signal manoeuvre’ example, when you are in pedestrian mode you don’t give explicit signals of your intentions to move or change direction. The reason seems obvious – at walking speed collisions very rarely happen and on the rare occasions that they do, almost never cause serious injury. Why are walking collisions so rare though? We don’t give conscious and explicit signals of intentions, but we do give unconscious and implicit signals – we read each other without thinking about it and more or less know what the people around us are going to do, without being consciously aware of this.

As a pedestrian, you cannot help but notice how many drivers don’t bother signalling. So much so, that the absence of a signal from a car is no indication that it not going to turn into your path. I would suggest that they are simply ‘behaving like walkers’, their driver training is not at that moment operational and it no more occurs to them to signal than it would to a pedestrian. They just unconsciously assume that their intentions are transparent – just as the intentions of a pedestrian actually are transparent to other pedestrians.

Another example is tailgating. I am a rather aggressive walker, prone to getting annoyed when held up behind a bunch of dozy tourists occupying the pavement, given to walking very close behind them, tutting impatiently and trying desperately to force a way through. This might be rude (thinking about it, this was definitely London behaviour) but it is not dangerous. Tailgating in a car is dangerous. Everyone knows, in some sort of theoretical way, that it is dangerous. Remember that chart of stopping distances on the back of the highway code? How often do you see the safe distances observed? Once again, I would suggest that the imposed driver training has switched off so it feels safe, just as it actually is safe to tailgate on foot.

So I would suggest that in the broadest sense we don’t behave like cyclists or behave like drivers; we all ‘behave like traffic’ – revert to our natural behaviour as walkers.

Does this have any campaigning relevance?

Indirectly. A quick online stroll will reveal huge amounts of shouting. Cyclists jumping red lights, dozy pedestrians who never look before stepping out, dumbass motorists who park on the pavement. Well shouting is great fun so please just get on with it. I quite like reading it sometimes. But shouting is all it is. It would be useful in campaigning effectively to be able to think strategically. Even though one’s own immediate situation is important, it is equally important to be able to think beyond it – and it gets us absolutely nowhere to start adopting a moralising tone or thinking of other people as stupid.

More importantly, although training is important and of course people can learn to do all sorts of new things, and learn to old things much better, even with this, perhaps one should beware of expecting training or education to pull too much weight. Folks will be folks.