Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Mincing Words

I’m a fan of words. I can safely say words – the study of the English language and the examination of mechanics, grammar and vocabulary that unite to create meaning – are the one thing I’ve studied my whole life yet never lost interest in learning more about. Perhaps that’s because language binds together everything we do in life. It is fascinating to me that the study of language is not something to be mastered; I will never reach a level where I am confident I can stop, a level where learning more is deemed frivolous or unnecessary. The peculiar thing about language is that we all regress or lapse into lazy patterns of speaking and writing based on interactions with peer groups or the lack of stimulation brought about by fresh words and phrases. I’m in a phase where I’m working against that tendency.

I am not a fan of phrases that permeate our common discourse yet utterly fail to purvey any truth or meaning. Examples of these abound. It’s true that we need a common lexicon of everyday jargon, slang and idiomatic expression. It is part of our cultural glue. I’m not downing those familiar turns of phrase. However, I believe there are some significant ways we negligently attempt to convey meanings that fall short of stating what truly happened or why. I’d like to focus on a couple that pertain to cycling, or more specifically the perilous side of cycling in the age of the automobile.

I began thinking critically about some common phrases and expressions five years ago while renewing literature studies at Metro State University in St Paul. I was enrolled in an information studies course where we examined electronic media and methods of evaluating bias in reporting. I wanted to complete a report linked to bicycle advocacy issues. I did not find all the information I needed for the report, but found some very interesting essays along the way. The articles that intrigued me dissected the prevalent tendency to categorize tragic collisions between motorists and pedestrians or cyclists as “accidents.” How many times do we hear on the news or read in the paper something to the effect of “Automobile Accident Leaves Walker/Cyclist Dead”? Or when reading an account you learn details such as: “Officers concluded the death was an accident. No citation was issued.” It was an accident. We have a dead person and someone who is visibly shaken and affects remorse. Case closed.

I’m not going to pick apart the definition of accident because we have assigned meaning to the word that makes it appropriate to use in cases where the outcome was unexpected. However, what of negligence? Or fault? And what about incidents where the severity of outcome was not unexpected but could have been avoided altogether (i.e. denied intentionality)? Is temporary anger an accident? Strong emotions or hatred (e.g. road rage)? Can these things cause what is truly an accident or is it something more?

My father got us involved in a radical church when I was in middle school. I have mixed feelings about that time in my life, but that’s a topic for another post (if not a chapter in a book – or an entire book). The minister of that church was a former big city police officer. He was kind of a smug, authoritarian, know-it-all prick at times. One of his regular rants was about accidents. He’d go blue on the face defending the stance that there is no such thing as an accident. Really, no such thing. And he believed, to a fault, there was shared blame for every situation. In theory this makes a lot of sense, but it leaves little room for getting shot while walking down the sidewalk or being rear-ended by an inattentive driver. Occasionally bad things happen to people who have done nothing to provoke the outcome. That’s an accident, right?

This idea that there’s no such thing as an accident that has been composting in my brain for the past 20+ years. I’ve come to the conclusion that it holds water, certainly in a theoretical sense, but in the real world, too. There are many steps we can all take to avoid “accidents” that become clearer in hindsight. We say all the time: I should have slowed down, looked the other way, watched where I was going, etc. If we can say these things resolutely, does that not blur the distinction as an accident? The more years I log as a regular bike commuter I’ve come to appreciate this idea of no such thing as accidents. After all, am I not more than 50% responsible for my safety every time I travel by bike? I like to think I operate my bike in a way that holds me more in the 85-90% responsibility range because I try to anticipate the behavior of drivers around me. Is that realistic though?

It’s begun to sink in – it’s not the word (accident) or the expression (it was an accident) that gets under my skin, it’s the implication of the word or phrase. In our society, labeling something an accident negates accountability or fault. And in many cases an accident is chocked up as Fate waving its fickle hand at some poor (injured, maimed or dead) person who should have exercised better judgment. Labeling the death of a human as an accident opens wide the tendency to blame the abstract or uncontrollable (fate, chance, the now-dead victim, the weather) and absolve others so we can get on with life. That’s worthwhile, eh? No doubt, it contributes to the uniformity of cultural discourse and preserves cultural flow. Some would argue this is paramount – to preserve the order of people going about things as normal. However, when our culture is anchored by such graven images as the automobile – a sacred cow that represents much of the status quo, yet is as empty as any idol cast down by early Christian zealots – I assert the cultural discourse must be challenged.

Is it not possible to prove, by simple anecdotal evidence, that there is inverse proportionality between the consequences of culpability and the willingness to admit fault? If the stakes are low (you trample your neighbor’s flowers) it’s easy to knock on the door, say ‘sorry’ and offer to replant them. You know this person (hopefully) and realize the value of preserving a peaceful relationship with him or her since it can benefit you down the road. If the stakes are high (you kill someone by striking them with your car) it’s much more savory to blame something beyond control (chance) and shrug responsibility (and penalty) by playing the accident card. The person was most likely a stranger. You didn’t know them or their family. And what were they doing walking there or riding their bike in the road anyway? ‘I only looked away for a second. My gosh, I didn’t even see him!’ The report states accident. Case closed.

If you’ve not inferred by now my point is the accident claim is a slippery slope. The variables are myriad and so intricate that they deserve more than a cursory label printed in short newspaper headlines and uttered thousands of times in news reports every day. As much as I sometimes despised that parochial figure from my youth, I believe it only fitting to give him credit for calling a spade a spade. An accident is not an accident, but rather a conveniently relabeled trapdoor used to jettison happenings that otherwise might call into question too many of the presumptions upon which our realities are based.

One of the most steadfast presumptions propping up our American reality is that automobiles are vitally important and their operators must be given the most generous benefit of the doubt so we can keep cars on the road, which in turn justifies the need to keep more cars on the road. The result is a grotesque disregard for other forms of viable, human-powered locomotion and the human right to life of those who choose to engage in those alternatives.

The second phrase I intended to pick apart is related, but the explanation is much shorter, so bear with me. What is the greatest fear of most cyclists? That’s easy – being hit by a car. Cyclists and non-cyclists alike rattle that off without a pause: So-and-so got “hit by a car.”

Have you ever thought about that phrase though? It’s ridiculous and nonsensical. One may be physically impacted by the outer shell of an automobile, but one does not get “hit by a car.” This casual phrase that is firmly rooted in our speech personifies the automobile, giving it life, intention and action. Now, one could argue that we have personified automobiles in our culture for as long as they’ve been in existence. How else does one love, pamper and worship something unless it has form? However, my point is not to launch a complex analysis of the role of the automobile within American culture, but to correlate the notion of culpability discussed above.

Personifying the car absolves the driver. It removes one step toward erasing human blame and labeling an incident an accident (it’s the car’s fault). However, the logical retort is plain – cars don’t think or act. I can’t pass up the opportunity to twist a gun rights bumper sticker into a defense of my point. The sticker reads: “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” The logic is sound. Cars don’t kill people. People kill people. Eschew personification and face the ugly fact: Intentionally or not, drivers kill people with their cars. Whether it’s inattentiveness (texting, talking, changing the station), lack of skill and ability or maliciousness, I’m putting it out there – automobile accidents are not accidents at all. They are caused, there is responsibility, there should be culpability and there should be penalty.

Some would laugh at that argument, saying “but a gun is a weapon.” Really, is a gun a weapon? No, technically a gun is a tool (not unlike a car). A gun is a weapon if used to threaten or harm another human being. My Swiss Army knife is a tool, too. Most people (outside of an airport security line) would laugh at its classification as a weapon. However, in trained or determined hands it could be an effective one. Still, I am allowed to carry it with me most places every day.

Can a car be a weapon? Well, if you are someone who quickly leaps to label a gun a weapon, the answer is ‘damn straight.’ Drivers threaten people with their cars everyday. That is precisely the next leap we must make in the American psyche. Hell, most of us consider guns weapons but more and more states are allowing citizens to legally carry them. It’s no stretch, the proof is there – cars are used as weapons everyday to threaten and harm. Yet, in the event of an “accident” all that’s needed to evade penalty is a simple mention of the ubiquitous A word. It’s a sociopath’s dream.

Let’s not stop reclassification with guns and cars and Swiss Army knives. Our culture is full of tools, both physical (e.g. baseball bats, tire irons, ax handles) and intangible (think ideas and philosophies), that are routinely transformed into weapons. What of power, strength and maleness, money and resources, hunger, inequality, dogma and doctrine? But that thesis is the topic of another future essay.

If you're not sufficiently tired of reading, I'll leave you with one of the saddest bike-car stories I've ever read.

Be well, be kind, be nice when it hurts.

1 comment:

Fonk said...

Excellent post, and right on the money.