Why are they so angry? (A guest essay)

Why are they so angry? (A guest essay)


Sarah Gilbert

This essay was written by local writer and bike tour guide Sarah Gilbert. Her last piece for us was Two moms, two cargo bikes, one big adventure.

Why are they so angry?

This was my first question. I told my story from the day a woman in a Mercedes pulled out from a side street onto Holgate, turning right, when I was riding up the sidewalk with my oldest son on the back of my longtail. But I could have told you about the man in a sports car who swung around a group of us, narrowly skirting my mama bike, as we rode laughing in the middle of a beautiful spring morning east on Everett Street. I said something like “watch it!” and I too was angry but not so much as the pedestrian walking beside us. He told us it was the law to ride single file.

Later I looked it up and learned that it’s a grey area, and anyway that guy was speeding so I’m pretty sure in a head-to-head battle of situational ethics I’d win. It was the middle of the day, a low-traffic situation, he had no reason nor right to endanger anyone to get around us. But it wasn’t him but the pedestrian, a well-dressed guy maybe in his 50s or 60s, who couldn’t let it go. At the time I replied to the pedestrian in surprise, “no it’s not!” and then he insisted it was, hotly, so we rode on. I made a joke something like, the guy in the sports car was trying to make a citizen’s execution, that was some punishment for the crime I was pretty sure was not eligible for the death penalty or probably even a ticket if a cop had happened upon us. We were joking loudly and there was a traffic light stopping us so the angry man could hear us and as we pulled away, when the light turned green, he yelled after us, “you have to give respect to get respect!”

I’m pretty sure it doesn’t work this way. I like to think smugly that I’ve given a lot of respect to the world in my life, even stopping at those stop signs in the circles for instance, even waiting at red lights when it’s late at night and no one’s around, even teaching my kids to respect the laws I think are kind of stupid, but — while oh I love this bike riding life! — the world at large does not see this respect and give it back to me. The world instead gives me a lot of anger.

I sought to answer the question, why are they so angry?, in this essay I wrote for Creative Nonfiction’s Human Face of Sustainability contest, and I ended up a finalist with $1,000 to spend on things I’d carry home on my bike. I was thinking about riding my bike but other things too, using reusable containers at the grocery store bulk bins and eating organic tomatoes I can myself and not buying new toys made from plastic in China. More too, growing food in a garden and being picky about how my meat was raised and lots of crunchy choices that get me called “self-righteous” and “holier-than-thou” and “elitist” because I’ve decided I can’t live with myself creating any more environment-destroying gunk than I absolutely must.

So we get angry. I get angry and the guy walking down the sidewalk gets angry and the angry bike guy on Portlandia gets angry and we’re all avoiding dealing with helplessness/chaos/shame in some way.

Of course I needn’t really create any, but that’s the other side of this essay.

The answer was, I finally realized while riding my bike, ethical traps. The things I’d been reading about in a book that looked like it would be boring, “Ethical Traps for Executives,” written by a friend of a friend, Robert Hoyk. We all make these ethical compromises every day to live in the world in which we live. We fall into traps like Trap 29: Everybody Does It. If I don’t buy that plastic My Little Pony doll in its cardboard-and-plastic box, someone else will. There’s Trap 27 (Advantageous Comparison: at least I’m composting my kitchen scraps), and 25 (Reduction Words: no big deal, just driving to the grocery store and to work), and 24 (Desensitization).

I think the most important one is what Bob Hoyk calls “Coworker Reactions,” and I’ll quote my essay here, “but it’s really Society’s Reactions: ‘If our fellow [humans] ignore, justify, or condone our unethical behavior, it supports our view that we didn’t do anything wrong or that if we did, it’s no big deal.’ Reduction Words again.”

I talk in the essay about how I’m falling into ethical traps, too, to use my coltan-rich laptop computer and live in a home heated by natural gas and my iPhone. (Addiction.) (Justification.) (Everybody Does It.) (Society’s Reactions.) I’m not saying I’m perfect. I know I’m far from it.

What I want to do is to stop talking about what’s happening to the environment (we’re pretty much fucked there anyway, no way of reversing the damage we’ve done) and human lives (30,000-some die each year in the U.S.) because of our insane overuse of cars and start talking about why we’re not doing anything.

A family ride to IKEA-8.jpg

(Photo J. Maus/BikePortland)

The answer is in the anger. Anger is a trap too; anger is a way we cope with feelings of helplessness, chaos, and shame. I’d say we all feel helpless about this. I’d say the world is in environmental chaos. I’d say we all feel shame.

So we get angry. I get angry and the guy walking down the sidewalk gets angry and the angry bike guy on Portlandia gets angry and we’re all avoiding dealing with helplessness/chaos/shame in some way. We’re all skirting the issue. We all need to own up.

I’m riding my bike not just because I have decided not to fall into a lot of those ethical traps but because it makes me happy. And I know it’s self-righteous again but part of the reason I live like I do is I want to raise the issue. I’m going to be honest here: I want to make people angry. I want them to face their shame.

I’ve let go of some of my anger but it follows us so, I’ve seen the anger flame out in other bicyclists, shouting at me and friends for taking up too much of the road on a bike boulevard or scenic highway, or shouting the other direction, at motorists. We’re all scared and we’re all spending so much time thinking in us vs. them mentality — whoever them is — that we forget what the real goal is here. Is it to get somewhere the fastest? Is that really the goal?

Get angry then. Get apoplectic. Yell and stomp and call the other guy a thoughtless asshole. And then start thinking about why you’re angry. What you fear. Take it apart bit by bit and hold the bits in your hand and look at them a minute. Now do something.

Tell someone else how happy your bike makes you or encourage a friend to ride a bike or spend an hour lecturing someone passionately on the ethical choices you’re making. Take a picture of your kids laughing behind you. Organize a thrift shop ride. Join a bike gang. Ride naked not to protest anything but just to feel the sun on your skin.

I’ll tell you what my goal is: my goal is happiness. I’m riding these days slow and heavy with too much cargo and super-short skirts. I’m riding in high-heeled sandals or ballet shoes, not yelling at anyone most of the time. Unless you’d like to hear my lecture on bicycle ethics. Sit down. I’ll pour you a beer in a mason jar. Now… first… take a deep breath…

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