The air has been abuzz with taunts whistling between those who offend Muslims, and Muslims getting offended. Some of the former have a valid reason to pick a fight, since a few among the latter have threatened violence against their freedom to speak. Some of the latter have valid cause to feel offended. Thankfully, no blood has been spilt. Yet.
Likewise, one often hears people gratuitously insult Christians over their beliefs, which naturally offends Christians. Granted, some of the latter maintain ideas that range from ridiculous to dangerous, such as that evolution cannot possibly be a part of God's work, that being gay is a sin worthy of punishment or that whites were worthy masters of blacks. Despite the fact that most Christians are perfectly just, sensible, peaceful and productive members of society, some of the critics have a valid reason to pick a fight, such as when the more radical Christian right proposes that public education should promote their extreme views.
Then there is the Malawian government, which has sentenced a gay couple to 14 years of hard labour. Oscar Wilde got two years, and died soon after at the age of 46. In short, Malawi's law is murderous, and the African governments, none of whom spoke out against the ruling, are complicit in this evil.
And don't get me started about Fifa fans and Fifa's malcontents, or the sympathetic supporters of Big Oil, Big Pharma and Big Box Retail versus those who think they are prime evil. Or witness those who believe politicians when they blame greedy bankers for the economic meltdown and the few who think that, for all the splinters of fraud and greed, the really chunky motes are in the eyes of the politicians themselves.
Everyone is getting mighty annoyed, and as a responsible member of the media, I would be remiss in my duty if I did not make a fair contribution to the orgy of hate. But who to pick? Which class of idiot deserves a presumptuous spanking more?
A colleague in the rarefied air of sports journalism (which is where motoring journalists go when they die) suggested I annoy everyone equally.
This is a most commendable idea, both in terms of intellectual challenge and visceral entertainment. Allow me, therefore, to make an instructive example of a group that includes Muslims, atheists, Christians, Jews, whites, blacks, capitalists, communists, eco-hippies, Hummer drivers, and even a few football fans.
It is the only group (I am embarrassed to admit) from whom I have ever received death threats. Despite my best efforts, no other group, however angry, has ever thought my humble musings worth that much. Not only did I receive death threats from people who were ominously circulating my photo and home address, but I was reported to the police as a credible threat to the group in question. My hopes of having annoyed someone else received a brief boost when someone swore at me on Twitter, but alas!, it was another person from the very same group. The group in question is cyclists.
You see, I had questioned the wisdom of mounting a bright LED headlamp on a bicycle helmet, because it shines right into motorists' eyes, blinding them. Such a headlamp cannot be dipped, as motor vehicle lights are required to do to prevent blinding oncoming road users. It bobs about in all directions, flashing and flickering in a most disorientating way. The retort, from a cyclist, was as vehement as if I'd actually knocked over the child riding behind the blinding-light fool. To my horror, I only saw the child in my rear-view mirror.
First came the swearing. Then came the utterly unrelated and baseless counter-accusation: "Were you tweeting while driving?"
He decided a day later that he shouldn't have sworn at me. Why, thanks! However, the presumption – both in this case and in the case of the death threats of a few years ago – was that I couldn't possibly be a cyclist myself, nor sympathise with the issues that affect cyclists.
On the contrary. I was born in a country famous for its bicycles. I grew up cycling everywhere, and have been in a few accidents myself, thanks to careless motorists. Because I know alternatives, I'm acutely aware of the lack of provision on our roads and in our traffic laws for cyclists, and of the danger to which this subjects cyclists.
Cyclists might have had a sympathetic defender in me, if I could stomach the thought of defending a group that includes so many obnoxious boors. Instead, I sold my bicycle and determined never to ride again. Thanks to cyclists, I now think cycle lanes are wasted parking space.
I'm not alone. Watch what happens when cyclists take over a city or a town for one of their interminable road races. First, they force themselves on the locals by closing all the roads. Their "consultation" extends to sending burly men in day-glo tights around the neighbourhood to ask if anyone would mind. You think your fire insurance would permit you to say no?
If they stop at a bar along the route, they order only water and demand the right to watch the Giro d'Bratislava. No offence to Bratislava, but there are regulars around, who watch rugby and cricket, and buy drinks that cost money. Then they get up and leave only a carpet of empty energy-syrup sachets for the landlord to clean up.
This behaviour isn't limited to big events, of course. For some reason, cyclists are the only sports people in the world who think it's cool to arrive at a restaurant stinking of sweat and clad only in too-much-information spandex. The rest of us shower after exercising.
One also cannot help observing that, while motorcyclists routinely wave thanks for little courtesies, cyclists, if they signal anything at all, communicate only anger or threats over some perceived injustice.
Undoubtedly, there are cyclists who aren't like this. I presume there are a few who don't view cars as mere murders waiting to happen. The problem is the loud, arrogant jerks among their number.
When someone who doesn't wear highlighter colours dares say something, these testosterone-fuelled oafs do not ignore the supposed provocation. No, no. They respond with anger and threats of violence, like puerile bullies. And many of their more mild-mannered peers will say the unbeliever had it coming, or propose government coercion to right some perceived wrong.
If you peruse cycling literature, you'll soon see that cyclists feel their relationship with everyone else is uncommonly adversarial. Needless to say, they mostly blame everyone else. Perhaps they should take a look at themselves. They'll find the very people who create this animosity in the first place by their threatening reaction to any perceived slight, criticism or joke.
This is not unlike the environmentalists who get spitting mad at the suggestion that the world isn't going to hell in a hand-basket unless you wear recycled hemp, or cause mayhem whenever an airport needs another runway.
This is not unlike the Muslims who issue fatwas, send death threats, and burn embassies whenever someone dares violate Islamic law. Not unlike atheists who go off the deep end about medieval wingnuts every time someone makes a public statement informed by their Christian beliefs. Not unlike Christians who taunt (or beat up) homosexuals. Not unlike blacks who see racism in every criticism of the government, or whites who see black incompetence or self-enrichment in every mistake. Not unlike socialists who yell about heartless corporate greed, or anarchists who threaten to blow up the nearest government building to defend their right not to pay tax.
All these groups can learn from cyclists. Cyclists are hated, as a group, not because all individual cyclists are offensive, but because their public voice and image has been hijacked by a vulgar sub-group.
Nobody can remedy this from the outside. Just like Muslims burdened with their mad mullahs, Christians stuck with hell-and-damnation puritans, atheists tearing their hair out over Richard Dawkins, or regular South Africans getting drowned out by the racists on both sides of every debate, cyclists can only deal with their offensive element themselves. And only, of course, if the extremists really are, as they claim, a vocal minority.
It would be nice to think that one could oppose closing busy roads for the entertainment of a few, or discuss the relative merits of safety equipment, without getting sworn at or worse. One cannot. It is equally hard to discuss freedom of speech in the face of legal repression and credible threats of violence.
Rational discussion is occasionally possible face-to-face, when it is harder to caricature the person you're talking with, but in public forums, it seems the most common assumption is that the other party hates you, and aims only to offend, belittle, patronise or insult you. This is seldom true, and the first step to civil discourse is not to act as if it is.
So it is in that spirit that I hope I have hereby offended everyone. If anyone feels they've been left out, let me know.
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