A couple of weeks back, the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik picked up the most recent biography about John Stuart Mill, that “nineteenth-century English philosopher, politician, and know-it-all nonpareil”. The whole article is well worth a read, but I was recently reminded of one of the article’s descriptions of Mill’s education:
It was nothing but history, math, economics, the classics, and the Benthamite axioms: actions could lead to pleasure or pain, happiness or distress, and the right action was the one that led to the most happiness for the most people. In hard hands, the principle could seem like a mechanical parody of ethics, but it had its points. Bentham’s real achievement was to squeeze the piety out of Enlightenment talk of “rights.” People didn’t have rights because their creator endowed them with rights; they had them because rights were useful to have. [My emphasis]
It came to mind because of a recent Streetsblog post, in which Ben Fried linked to a recent Hunter College study about the number of cyclists who break traffic laws in New York City [in the interest of full disclosure, I break traffic laws, but only the stupid ones]. Ben makes a good point when he writes about the authors’ call for “greater helmet use and adherence to traffic laws”:
Again, all well and good, but leaving it at that reinforces the perception that cyclists would be much safer if only they obeyed the letter of the law. It’s easy to hear echoes of NYPD’s insistence, in the waning days of the Giuliani administration, that “cyclist error” was to blame in three quarters of deadly crashes.
Alex Thompson of WestsideBIKEside was first to comment on the article, and added:
You know, Americans aren’t the Dutch – we’re not going to stand at a red light in the middle of a blizzard with no one around an wait. I’ll blow that light 11 times out of 10, and so will most Americans – motorists and cyclists. We need to get real about what we really want and expect from cyclists. Do we want safety, or do we want utter deference to the law? The answer is clear – safety – that’s the purpose of the law.
His comment brought me back to the Mill piece, and in particular to that section I’d italicized: People have rights because they’re useful, not because they’re inalienable or owed to us for something we’ve done.
All of which brings me in turn to the Cyclists’ Bill of Rights, due to be debated at tomorrow’s City Council Transportation Committee meeting (first announced on Streetsblog, with more recent discussion at green LA girl and WestsideBIKEside). Via Gary Rides Bikes, I happened upon Enci’s most recent post at Illuminate LA, in which the document is discussed at some length. She reads the Los Angeles Bicycle Advisory Committee’ version of the original Bill of Rights, and notices several fundamental changes.
First, the “Whereas” of the original version has disappeared. Defined by Merriam-Webster as “in view of the fact that”, the original “Whereas” took it as a given that cyclists were a fact on the streets of the city and not some planned or hoped-for future (echoes of DJ Waldie?). In taking out the “Whereas”, Enci notes that it’s been replaced with gibberish about people who had nothing to do with writing the document. Second, Enci notes that “sufficient and significant” has been changed to “significant and sensible”, continuing:
Giving someone the sufficient road space that is necessary for the safety of a cyclists as opposed to what is perceived as safe are two different things. I would also suggest that what is sensible to the LADOT is not the same as what is significant or sufficient.
Sufficient and significant would be what BikinginLA proposed in October. Significant and sensible? It’s people who’ve never ridden for anything other than recreation trying to get out of anything tangible. Enci goes on to work through the rest of the proposed amendments, and it’s well worth a read.
But it’s worth thinking a moment longer about this question of language and about the control of language. Without getting too abstract, I think it’s fair to say that language and power are intimately linked. To control the way in which something is talked about is to gain some control over the thing itself. Think, in a more concrete sense, about efforts to designate 4th a “bike boulevard”. These amendments might come out of a political decision on the part of the LA BAC [and nb: I know next to nothing about the politics or the process], an attempt to control the language and so frame the debate. What’s interesting about the amendments is how much they seem to be a top-down approach: Someone in a postion of authority took a document and refashioned it to serve their purposes.
Never mind the fact that that document came out of an experience of riding the streets of Los Angeles. Never mind the fact that that document was written by people who ride often, who ride hard, and who ride because it’s a commitment that they’ve made. Never mind the fact that that document asserts the simple truth that cyclists – like everybody heading home in traffic on a Thursday evening – are people too. One of the really inspiring thing about that document is the way in which it rises out of a social experience and suggests a distillation of language that people share. And it might be that that insurgent prose might actually be threatening, might be more radical than some are willing to admit.
But for my own part: As written, as ridden. I’m sorry I can’t make it to the meeting tomorrow, but I have high hopes for those who are going. Speak clearly from the street, and tell whomever is listening that we’re not asking for our rights as cyclists because of some inalienable truth or ineffable desire. We’re asking for our rights because they help us make our way in the wide wide world. We need our rights because they’re useful to have.