The Sacred Group: My research project is called ‘Pedals to the People: Discourse, Social Dynamics, and Active Travel’. It is about cycling and cyclists, yet it is really about driver dominance, about patterns in the giant conversation that flows in and through our society that indicates drivers are a dominant social group.
The social theory I applied is bleak and pessimistic about the chances of successfully challenging social hierarchies. It can help us understand why any effort towards better provision for cycling is so often met with resistance that seems disproportionately virulent, illogical, and at times can be described as violent.
I believe it also suggests a possible way to bypass this sometimes shocking response.
At the same time, it cautions against something we need to watch out for in any efforts to improve the safety and well-being of anyone not travelling by car (or truck, van, etc., but this excludes buses). Let’s call them NCUs (non-car-users).
I believe there are two aspects to the framing of a proposed intervention aimed at improving the road user experience for NCUs that may help in anticipating and responding to resistance. The first is to avoid framing the intervention as being intended to benefit NCUs, especially if a negative impact on driver convenience is unavoidable.
This is usually the case, because so much of what we need to do to keep people safe when they are cycling, walking, scooting, skateboarding etc cannot be done without taking something from drivers.
That something is more often than not space, but can also be junction tightening, speed bumps, chicanes, or anything that hinders or is perceived to hinder the driver’s ability to move as fast as they like, as comfortably as they like (this is often “as fast/comfortably as before”).
The reality is that we’re in this situation because drivers were given everything, prioritised and catered to in every possible way for decades. People will not respond logically with that knowledge in mind, giving the thumbs up because they see how this is a rebalancing, not a deprivation.
The social theory I applied in examining the situation predicts that, among many other complex influences on our reaction to change, even those who stand to benefit will often resist taking away from the dominant group as it goes against what is perceived to be the natural order of things.
For that reason, I think one should find a “sacred group”: a social group that we as a society instinctively prioritise over even the dominant social group in the context of the road network. The most obvious group is children, and a close contender is elderly people.
Consider that in the Netherlands the campaign that led them from spatial design as car-centric as anywhere to the cycle-centric infrastructure they are now famous for. Their slogan was not “save our cyclists”, it was “stop the child murder”.
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I would say one could get as angry and demand the same here, but it seems to me that a reaction of effectively imprisoning children for their own good is the more natural one in Ireland. Considering why this is the case would take at least another article. The fact remains that we are no different from the rest of the world in that something framed as protecting children or elderly people tends to resonate.
The problem is that I am not the only one who has realised this. Consider this recent article about a protest against a junction redesign. The protesters’ cause is framed exactly as you’d expect if someone deliberately considered what I described above.
The Offaly Express reported how one of the organisers of the protest said that the protest was taking place for people to:
“…stand together to keep our families safe from this disastrous junction layout… Our families are in danger daily, our elderly have had their parking taken away, our sick have no parking near their local doctor, our children are at risk on these ridiculous footpaths, our drivers are trying to navigate dangerous and totally unacceptable and impossible corners.”An organiser of a protest quoted by Offaly Express / offalyexpress.ie
The second aspect in the framing of interventions aimed at improving the road user experience for NCUs is to frame those driving as potential heroes. Frame the acceptance of whatever sacrifice is made as an act taken to help protect the sacred group or groups.
In my daily work, I often have to persuade people to support proposed infrastructure changes around schools. My starting point is always explaining how bad air pollution around schools is for our children, that the main source of that pollution is parents’ cars, and how this means parents have the power to protect their children simply by parking away and walking the last few hundred metres to collect their child at the gate, if they are not comfortable allowing their child to walk that bit by themselves (this is, of course, aimed at those whose journey origin point makes walking/cycling the whole way unviable).
While most of these meetings have resulted in declared support, it is true that none of the projects I’ve been involved in have been taken to completion, so I have not yet had a chance to see if this support will hold into the realisation of the proposed changes.
Theoretically, therefore, our best chance is to frame these changes as beneficial to the sacred groups. The good news is that this framing is based on truth, so it can be supported with facts and figures. The bad news is that the struggle between those supporting and those opposing social justice and equality never ends. Those whose orientation is such that the dominance of one group over others feels right and natural will not stop leaning in that direction. Laws can be changed. One system of dominance can be replaced with another. Overt discrimination can be replaced with covert discrimination.
There is a TikTok going around where a woman, Susi Vidal, starts a little video saying: “Call me crazy if you like, but I’ve never liked store-bought Pesto”, and other users follow this snip with their own crazy story. I watched one last night where a woman told the story of how her own mother tried to murder her. I feel a bit like Susi when I think of something as relatively trivial as driver dominance as a social justice issue, especially in the context of the devastating, heartbreaking situations social dominance theory is more regularly associated with around the world.
And yet, it is no exaggeration to say that the dominance and consequent proliferation of driving has cost millions of lives both directly and indirectly since the invention of the car. It disproportionately harms exactly those groups who are also victims of heartbreaking oppression. These issues are messy, often impossibly intertwined.
When all is said and done, whether the injustice we see is big or small in the context of the wider world, we can never stop pushing back.