Having just returned home from book club, where we discussed Michael Pollan’s latest unpacking of modern food culture and its broader effects on societal norms, a resounding undercurrent presented itself: namely, that Pollan has an uncanny knack for stating the obvious. To wit, (and please, excuse the reductionist analysis that is to follow), at one time we were hunters and gatherers who obtained nourishment wherever possible. We would eat on the go. You found a patch of berries? Fantastic, better scoop ‘em up before another animal comes along!
With the advent of cooking, the social norms surrounding the act of eating and nourishment were altered drastically. It was no longer one (wo)man for themself. Social norms developed with regards to how one should behave around the dinner table—it became a site in which to enact social norms—waiting for others to join the table, using the appropriate cutlery for appropriate dishes, and making pleasantries. Pollan’s analysis falls short in that it erases class distinction, and in so doing assumes that all families, no matter race or creed or socioeconomic status, were afforded the luxury of abiding by these new social norms. Regardless, by and large, it became widely accepted that there were a broad set of rules by which one should conduct themselves at the dinner table.
But that’s not what I’m here to talk about.
For as much as I love food; eating it, analyzing it, growing it, cooking it, preserving it; I’m here to analyse social matters that extend beyond nourishment. Where I seek to draw the parallels, however, exists in the space where the ideas start to click in a deliberate and obvious way.
As a cyclist who uses two wheels to commute as long as the weather allows, I’m seeking ways to become better involved with cycling culture and its attendant political/infrastructural issues. Having recently come across an article on WaPo entitled Don’t make bicyclists more visible. Make drivers stop hitting them. , I couldn’t help but draw the parallel between safe cycling culture and the movement to end violence against women.
Let me explain.
Women and girls are raised to defend themselves against rape and violence and in so doing, the responsibility for these heinous acts are placed squarely on the shoulders of the potential victims of violence. Girls are taught that the way they dress may invite unwanted stares or worse; men are taught that they have sexual urges that they have no control over. Women are taught that being out late at night and drinking can invite unwanted behaviour; men are taught that women are theirs to conquer.
As women, as soon as we step out the door, we are taught to be on alert.
I would argue that the same is true of cyclists.
Cyclists are taught to always look out for the motorists’ next move, to always be one step ahead. As the article pontificates, a cyclist’s decision whether or not to wear a helmet can often weigh heavily in the public’s perception of the aftermath on any ‘accident’ involving a cyclist. Women are taught the same when it comes to the ‘matter’ of being a woman in public. As cyclists we accept that the current infrastructure is one that prioritizes the desires motorists while ignoring the many positive ramifications afforded by cyclists. Men aren’t taught to take responsibility for their actions in much the same way that motorists aren’t taught to share the road with others. In sum, popular cultural narratives continue to emphasize that the victim of a cycling accident wasn’t wearing a helmet, while the driver’s dangerous habits go unexamined. The same is unequivocally true of women (and men) who experience violence and for whom the perpetrators of said violence goes unnoticed.
This is not something we passively accept, but something we work against as we advocate for more bike lanes and to educate about cyclists’ rights. The same goes for women’s rights. The patriarchy ain’t nothing new here. It doesn’t mean we’ll stop fighting against it. It doesn’t mean we’ll accept that status quo that continues to see no problem with educating women on how to avoid rape whilst failing to address the root of the problem: the men who perpetrate violence against women.
As a cyclist, I’m taught to always be on the lookout for impending danger. As a woman, to do this is second nature.
For me, the parallels between establishing a safe cycling infrastructure and woman-friendly society come down to core issues: we need to critically examine the causes of the inequality and its preponderance to blame the victim. At the end of the day, we have nothing to lose from addressing these issues, but everything to gain, not least of which is a more just and equitable society with safer streets for all.