The Subtle Censorship That Defines Acceptable Discourse

People suffer when the horrors of our transport system are obscured by well meaning activists

A friend of mine- Janel Sterbentz- recently volunteered to be featured on the San Francisco based Bike NOPA blog in their “Women who Bike” series.   She submitted her responses to the questions, but the editor of Bike NOPA, Michael Helquist (also the winner of the SF Bike Coalition’s 2010 Golden Wheel Award), didn’t like her answer to question number 2, and requested that she change it if the piece was to be published.

This was the question:
2.  How often do you bike and what for?
And this was her answer:

“I bike every day to stay mentally and physically fit. I don’t want anything to do with the oil industry’s wars, carnage from motorists hitting pedestrians/cyclists, or the air and noise pollution. To me cycling leads to a positive future and pleasant street environment while driving leaves destruction and unpleasantness in its path. Also, it is just so much fun to bike.”

She declined to remove the offending paragraph and now her interview won’t be published as a result.

When viewpoints like Janel’s are intentionally kept out of public discourse, it does a major disservice to the political debate around our transport policies.   First, it allows people who habitually drive to continue to insulate themselves from the very real impacts of their mode choice on other people, particularly vulnerable road users.   Second, erasing voices like this one leaves the impression that if you are irritated by the noise, air pollution and danger caused by car traffic then you are somehow unusual, marginalized, or radical in some way.  A fear of marginalizing oneself actually helps perpetuate that marginalization.

The reality is that millions of regular people around the world- people who drive, cycle, walk, take the bus, or whatever- are irritated and their quality of life is diminished by transport policies that make car traffic- not human life or the environment- the primary consideration.

It’s no surprise that people wrongly believe that they are alone in these feelings or that there is no recourse within acceptable political debate to resolve them, when even bicycle advocates are afraid to reflect the truth about the environmental and social devastation caused by motor vehicle dependence.

The bicycle is wonderful for what it is (a liberating, fun, and healthy vehicle for the masses), but it is also wonderful for what it is not (a car) .  As the bicycle increases in popularity and organizations that promote its use gain political clout, they should not fail to remind people of the facts of car and fossil fuel dependence in some misplaced politeness or reluctance to confront.  Yes we need carrots- they are sweet, succulent, and attractive.  And god knows the bike is that.  But we also need the sticks of reality to wake people up who have been driven to excess by an insane, motorized world.

This is what the editor of Bike NOPA- Michael Helquist- told On the Level when reached for comment:

“I felt that a few of the comments made in this one submission were a bit doctrinaire and negative (with descriptions of the “carnage from motorists hitting pedestrians and bicyclists” and the “destruction” that comes with driving), and these were not a good fit for the series. As I mentioned to Janel Sterbentz today if I was interviewing her about larger transportation issues, about hazards that accompany biking, and the serious impacts of people relying solely on individual automobiles when other options are feasible, then her comments would certainly fit the context as reflecting her personal opinion.

I’m sure this wasn’t the way it was consciously intended, but effectively what Michael is saying is that he wanted to run a happy-go-lucky series about smiling women on bikes.  Forget that there are often complex reasons why women ride, or that women suffer disproportionately from car culture or that cycling itself might be a deeply political statement against the pain and destruction caused by cars.  When those issues arise, they are too often erased from the record because they might make people feel uncomfortable.  This is not an isolated incident, but a reflection of the larger dilution and creeping corporatization of the cycling movement and society at large.

We didn’t make smoking socially unacceptable by tip-toeing around the feelings of nicotine addicts- we showed them diseased lungs and confronted them with the scientific research.  What makes those who purport to seek social change in the transport arena so afraid of leveraging the growing body of evidence of the catastrophe of car addiction in order to change behavior?

Put simply, individuals are not going to make the right decisions about their transport habits or support sensible transport policies if they don’t have the facts.   And where are they going to get those facts if they aren’t disseminated by bike advocates and organizations dedicated to sustainable transportation?

25 responses to “The Subtle Censorship That Defines Acceptable Discourse

  1. that sucks.

  2. Amen. What do you call it, if not carnage? If you don’t *really* want to kn ow why people bike, don’t ask and don’t lie about their reasons.

  3. Thanks for bringing this out into the open. I think I’ll contact Bike NOPA dude to voice my displeasure.

  4. Hey, maybe he’s trying to get a job with BP.

  5. onthelevelblog

    Y’know let’s try not to be too harsh on Mr. Helquist- he’s done a lot for biking in SF and he’s not our enemy. My point is that he is a product of SF bicycle advocate culture and it’s worth taking a critical eye to the strategies that are employed (and often taken for granted) within this culture. I believe that failing to firmly convey the truth and consequences of car addiction has been a mistake. When I look at the reasons I sold my car, it’s because back in 1996 someone gave me information about the death and environmental destruction wrought by the car. Goddamn right it made me feel guilty- and guilt changed my behavior!

  6. I’ve also had quite enough of the “pretty girls on bikes” photos on blogs. Casual voyeurism when we should be discussing the very real issues facing cycling, and facing society due to the effect of cars.

    Carnage is not too strong a word. Cars directly kill more people than wars (including the wars fought to keep access to fuel for cars) and indirectly kill vastly more.

    They have killed more people than the worst human rights abuses of history.

    What’s more, the number of injuries swamps the number of deaths.

    This really is not something that a healthy society should ignore.

    The interviewer wanting to interview Janel “about hazards that accompany cycling” appears to indicate that he wanted to turn this on its head, portraying cycling as a dangerous activity. It’s not exactly the first time this has happened.

  7. =v= I like Michael Helquist’s blog and work a lot, and I’m disappointed in this decision. His coverage of the NOPA scene is incomplete without Janel’s contribution (and I suspect he won’t be interviewing neighborhood bike hero Katherine Roberts anytime soon, either).

    For me, biking around NOPA necessarily involves dealing with the fact that cars are death monsters and stopping ARCO from their continual ruining of our bike lanes (just as we must stop their parent company, BP, from their continual ruining of our oceans).

  8. I’m glad you brought this up. As E.D. of the SFBC I often took the opportunity to connect oil wars with our movement and suffered some backlash because of it. Part of the reason why I left the SFBC was because I knew that it was possible to take the bicycle movement further if you focused on just that — the bicycle movement — and left out the larger picture issues that I personally wanted to address. I think there’s value to pushing a bike agenda exclusive of the other aspects — you get warmongers on your side for example — and I think bikes are such an incredibly valuable tool in our struggle against the capitalist war machine that we may gain more by just focusing on bikes and not reminding people of the larger implications of a bicycle-oriented transformation. It’s not for me; I can’t be so narrow-minded very easily. But I’m OK with it.

    I read Bike NOPA now and then — it’s one of the best bike blogs in the world — but I don’t need the fluffy stuff that he’s producing so it’s not on my regular reading list. I only go there when I see a link that interests me.

    We need an organization to “firmly convey the truth and consequences of car addiction” although I HATE the “addiction model” as a description of our problem AND we need a bike-focused group.

    And, guess what: we have one:

    Please sign up!

  9. onthelevelblog

    @Dave: there is always a balance between taking a movement into the mainstream and mainstreaming the messages and worldview of a movement. With what we know- especially about the risks of continuing to emit 5 billion tons of CO2 into the air every year, social norms are way behind the scientific reality. Changing social norms requires that every individual and organization aware of the truth does not censor or water down these messages in some misguided attempt to enter the mainstream faster. Ultimately, it boils down to the question of WHY we want to see more bikes on the street- that shift has all sorts of livability and safety implications, but most importantly we are well and truly fucked if we continue on with car dependence. The kind of suppression of the truth that we see on Bike NOPA is just a glimpse of what goes on everyday. This is an example of making the movement fit into the mainstream when- based on every scientific study available- we desperately need the mainstream to adopt the views of the movement.

    The addiction analogy is disturbingly apt- see:

    By omitting important information about how bad the situation really is, people can carry on without having to admit we have a major problem. To an addict, that is in effect license to carry on with our addiction.

    Our dependent relationship with cars is really really bad news- why are we so afraid to say that?

  10. onthelevelblog

    Some people might say, “why aren’t you directing your energies elsewhere, against the real barriers to change?” But the stakes are so high here- if environmental and sustainable organizations are not being direct about the incredibly stupid risks we’re taking with the climate- if they’re not taking people’s rage about climate change, road kill, and oil spills and amplifying it- instead coddling people (including many of their own members) whose behaviour is part of the problem, then they are doing a disservice and holding the movement back.

    I asked Mr. Helquist if he owns a car- not because I think he’s a bad person if he does, but because I think it might help explain his reluctance to publish Janel’s interview.

    He declined to answer.

  11. I’m glad you published this, and glad to see a lot of long-time participants having their say too. I think it’s quite interesting as a commentary on the bike culture around here, as you note. Dave said he left the SFBC because he didn’t feel he could pursue a broad social agenda, that he would have to remain narrowly focused on bikes and bicycling if he stayed. His successor did just that, and now the SFBC is a big NGO with a big budget, lots of staff (many of whom I like personally), a certain amount of City Hall political clout, and a frustratingly narrow, practically myopic agenda.

    So I like your publishing this because it highlights the kind of culture that has spawned the growth of the SFBC, which i tend to think of as a northern california “let’s all just be nice to each other” political culture, where having an argument or a strong position on the FACT that we live in the #1 war-making, havoc-producing country in the world (by FAR) is automatically “bad vibes,” and dismissed as “too doctrinaire or negative.”

    The implication is that if you’re NOT taking a position on carnage, wars in Iraq and Af-Pak, the Gulf oil spill, ongoing drilling, ramping up nuclear, catering to the myth of clean coal, etc. you’re being neutral, reasonable, calm, but most evidently as implied by the NOPA blogger, appropriate.

    So I heartily disapprove of the NOPA blogger’s decision. It’s dumb, and it does not serve the basic responsibilities of our political and historical time. Not even close. Bicycling is NOT enough, and while I’m a long time cyclist and well-known for my advocacy of cycling, I’m exasperated at the narrowness of so many cycling scribes, books, blogs, etc. It’s a kind of pathetic techno-fetishism misapplied to a device that by itself will not erode the institutional impediments to a better life for all.

    All that said, it is a sloppy use of language to describe the blogger’s decision as “censorship.” Please do not throw that around this way. It’s an editorial decision, well within his rights as the publisher and writer. He is not obliged to publish anything he doesn’t want to. It’s that simple. Just as simply, you can disagree, you can publish what he didn’t here on your blog (and it’s good that you did), and you can give him shit here too, which we’re all doing. That’s a constructive dialogue, albeit a bit disjointed.

    I also strongly disagree with the incessant invocation of the addiction metaphor. That personalizes a structural, institutional systemic problem, and wrongly situates the historic agency to change this with individual behaviors. If you convinced 35% (or more) of San Franciscans to ride their bikes and stop owning cars, it would have absolutely no effect on the power of multinational oil companies, nor would it affect the U.S. government in its role as facilitator/lapdog for those interests. It’s a self-flattering misconception that our behavior really matters when it comes to globe-spanning techno-systems with massive vested interests. They do not hesitate to make war on their opponents and eventually we’ll face that too if we organize a political movement capable of really challenging their power. It’s not an addiction to live a life embedded in the larger dynamics of society.

    Working on car-free, dedicated panhandles crisscrossing the City will have a much greater effect on individual choices to cycle or drive than constantly guilt-tripping people over car ownership or even just riding in a car from time to time (as we all do, except for the furiously morally pure!)…


  12. BikinginFlorida

    The “journalist” censors. Thanks for letting me know. I will not frequent the blog again and neither will my bike buddies in our Florida group. I abhor censorship. As a journalist he should know better. Frankly, I wonder what else he has “chosen” not to publish. Don’t ask the questions if you don’t want the answer. It ain’t all pretty and it never will be. It’s called life.

    You can try and make it nice and justify his reasoning–there is never a justification for censorship. The justification he provided is sickenly weak. Those of us with intellectual prowess see it for what it is. EVERYONE that bikes is not doing for activism. Some are–they have a voice just like those that bicycle for recreation–for fun–for financial reasons. So, he declines to publish her comment–it still was published. And none of the people he was so afraid of offending care. People that would be offended do not read his blog or this one or any other blog about commuting or alternative transportation. HELLO! Further, I have property in Zambia if he would have printed the answers if he were doing an article about dangers of cars etc. Lies.

  13. @onthelevel: I agree, a sentiment often develops that the organizations who speak for and represent the movement are on top of the issues and are working in our best interest. That they know what they are doing so we don’t need to get involved unless we are told what to do.

    This is not wise, especially when those organizations may not actually be doing much to further a cause, as is the case with many environmental orgs that are now getting funding from polluting corporations and other orgs that benefit from the status quo.

    When those organizations that have a reputation for being progressive are depended upon for representing and acting in the best interest of the common good, but they don’t follow through, nothing gets done and nobody questions why.

    I think this is a major reason for the expansive gap between what people want and our current state of affairs.

  14. onthelevelblog

    Chris- thanks for your comment. First about the term censorship. I agonized a bit over that word, but on reflection I do think that Michael’s decision reflects a form of subtle, mild censorship. The word is defined as: “the suppression of speech or deletion of communicative material which may be considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, or inconvenient to the government or media organizations as determined by a censor.” A million subtle ‘editing decisions’ happen like this every day, shaping (and responding to) acceptable public discourse. This is of course- how social norms come about.

    Yes editors have a right to publish what they see fit, but I would also consider the “Caronicle”s reluctance to print letters it receives that would be detrimental to its advertisers’ or owners’ interests to be censorship. If you put a call out for reader feedback and then select against ones you think are ‘objectionable’ or ‘inconvenient’ rather than just uninteresting, abusive or irrelevant, you are shaping reality in a not entirely honest way.

    For example, I would never delete a comment submitted to this site just because I didn’t agree with the content or think it wasn’t suitable. The Bike NOPA blog was soliciting public feedback. In response, Janel wrote her answers to the questions. It was at least as interesting and relevant an interview as the rest but Michael chose not to run it even though it was respectful, honest, and relevant. Is it more doctrinaire to write down what anyone with eyes and ears can see and hear, or to suppress those observations because of pre-conceptions of how people will react to it?

    As far as the addiction comparison goes, I totally agree that what we are up against is a systemic, institutional problem. It is an individual as well as a systemic addiction. We need both individual and systemic change. Gradual change in individual behavior is part of the cultural ferment that makes huge step changes that may not seem possible today, possible in the future.

    I disagree with many comments coming from progressive environmentalists these days- I think this call for social change without individual change is a narrative that inhibits badly needed paradigm shift and allows individual reckless behavior to continue. It’s almost as if they’re saying “yeah we need social change brother, but in the meantime take care of yourself. Why deny yourself the pleasure when it won’t make any difference unless everyone does it?” It’s a circular argument. Derrick Jensen claims that he drives a car but isn’t a part of “car culture.” WTF does that mean?

    We’re not going to starve the ones who pull the strings of power and money unless something monumental takes place in how people think about the work they do, and how they get around- in other words who we are in the world.

    We need not only the individual decision to bike or walk, travel less or buy less stuff or whatever- we need the change in political awareness or consciousness that that produces (and originates from). That in a way is more important than the act itself, as it disassociates one from the destructive parts of this culture- makes us less dependent on it.

    The selling of my car has made me more politically opposed to car culture, because I am no longer invested in it- motorized traffic has very little benefit to me, and quite a lot of disbenefit. Same thing with my relationship with the aviation industry. All take and no give. When aircraft noise disturbs my sleep, I’m really much more annoyed since I gave up flying, since I don’t benefit from the system, at least directly.

    I don’t disagree with your emphasis on structuralism. Personal decisions are made in a deeply social context, but that doesn’t make the decisions themselves meaningless. Slavery was halted by a systemic change and a growing consensus in society of its immorality, but that doesn’t mean the individual decisions by people to release their slaves, forgo slave ownership, or even risk their own lives to release those enslaved by others did not contribute to this eventual moral shift.

    With fossil fuel use, our social mores are in flux. The scientific facts are at odds with the social norms, which are struggling to keep up.

    I don’t think that guilt trips will change anyone’s mind, but neither will burying facts, perspectives and viewpoints about the harm one is doing just because they are “inconvenient” and morally challenging.

    Yes it takes courage to refuse to go along with something popular yet morally wrong. I just don’t think it will wash with those living on a dying planet in the future when we say, “sorry we knew the great burning was wrong, but we were living our lives embedded in the larger culture. So sorry your house is now underwater.”

  15. first of all, if your friend doesn’t want “anything to do with … carnage from motorists hitting pedestrians/cyclists, or the air and noise pollution,” then why is she cycling in the first place? cycling gives you a whole LOTTA those things. argument fail. second of all, better cycling infrastructure GIVES people rights. the criminalization of tobacco takes rights AWAY. analogy fail. (nevermind that whether you smoke or not, your chances of dying remain 100%.) the guy at bikeNOPA (way to gentrify the neighborhood name, btw) was doing a fluff piece about why people like to ride. it was neither the time nor the place for incendiary comments. we all know that cycling is better than driving for a thousand different reasons. can we never just have fun with it? lighten up people. if you ate coal, you’d sh!t diamonds. it’s not MLK’s dream. it’s a bike. i’ve been riding mine for 30 years, and i can see that we live in the best time for cycling since the 1800s. if you can’t see that, then you need a reality check. there’s better fights to get involved in. gay people can’t get married and you’re concerned about editing clearly confrontational comments out of a BLOG? is that REALLY your priority?

  16. onthelevelblog

    @Dave: I think it muddies the waters to say that either the SFBC has to focus on a narrowly defined bicycle agenda or it has to take on everything from oil wars to multinational corporations. The SFBC- as far as this member is concerned- should be an organization dedicated to promoting bicycle riding- through individual choice and public policy.

    Because cars make bicycle riding more dangerous- at least unpleasant- then to that extent the SFBC should be advocating against car use- not as a dogmatic guilt trippy thing- but simply as a practical matter of social responsibility. If you ask organizations like the SFBC why the horrific facts about car dependence aren’t included in their messaging, they will say that a) people already know this stuff (which is not true because the mass media certainly doesn’t talk about it) or b) mentioning it will alienate car drivers and make them ignore your message (which is not true as long as you approach people as citizens and residents not just car drivers- they are not a separate species I know it’s hard to remember).

    All we’re saying is that organizations like the SFBC have much more to gain by including voices that are pointing out the painful truths of oil addiction, rather than intentionally excluding them to try and paint a false rosy picture- even as the Barbarians draw closer to the gates…

  17. onthelevelblog

    @Blair: Yes the decision to bicycle or walk can put you in a position that is more vulnerable to the effects of auto traffic, but by not driving you are also reducing that effect on others- breaking the cycle of car dependence. To many, that is an incredibly satisfying part of the car-free life, in addition to the joys of self-propelled transport itself- not least the endorphins and feeling of contentedness after exercise. As long as I’m not driving a car, I’m not going to (accidentally) break the heart of the parent of a kid chasing a stray ball. That is a very comforting thought.

    No one is talking about making car driving illegal- that’s pretty far down the road I think. We are talking about social norms- the kinds of behavior that will make you friends and get you laid. Smoking has shifted from something cool, sexy, and acceptable to something dirty, unhealthy, and unacceptable, over the last 20 years. It’s not illegal, it’s just frowned upon. Fossil fuel use is (albeit slowly) going the same way.

    So why is Janel’s comment incendiary? Cars do cause an incredible amount of carnage (and heartache for the victims lest we forget). And they do leave a trail of destruction and unpleasantness in their wake (just try walking along a busy road and trying to breathe or have a conversation). These are facts. They are not incendiary because they are lies- they are only incendiary because you don’t hear “mainstream” voices talk about them very often. I think if you examine the reasons for that you will come to the conclusion that these observations are not in the interests of certain powerful interests in society.

    I have to disagree that we’re living in the best time to bicycle since the 1800’s. Certainly there was a golden age of bicycling in the 1890’s, when the “safety” bicycle became commonplace and cars were rare. But until the 1950’s the number of cars was at most a tenth of how many they are today. Unrestrained growth in cars and roads have meant that many great bicycling routes are now in effect off limits to most riders these days. Cars have destroyed so much, and we are now clawing back what we can with green bike lanes etc. Though I think it’s fairly ridiculous to advocate for a “separated bike lane” all the way down Market St. when what we should be doing is getting cars off Market St. all together- not just for cyclists but for everyone.

    I agree that people should be able to marry whoever they want. That still doesn’t change the fact that NONE OF IT WILL MATTER unless we can overcome our addiction to fossil fuels. It all comes from the same place anyway- a lack of respect for human (and other) life and freedom. Animal rights. Gay rights. The peace movement. Livable Streets movement. Our causes are all the same. I just hope we realize it in time.

  18. @onthelevelblog…

    please don’t misunderstand — i’m a 20-year san francisco resident and a cycling advocate. i haven’t owned a car since i was 18 years old (i’m 37). i THOROUGHLY believe that fossil fuel consumption is ruining the planet and our species. (every species, in fact.) america’s sedentary lifestyle is abhorrent and i feel like i’m making a statement every day simply by riding one of my bikes. all i’m saying is that despite agreeing 100% with all of janel’s comments, they were inappropriate in context. the guy was just trying to put together a whimsical little piece about having fun on your bike, and she used it as an opportunity to stoke the political fire. riding a bike isn’t SOLELY about making a statement. it’s also about fun and health. i get asked all the time why i bother riding my bike everywhere (especially when it’s pouring down rain, like today). if it’s someone or somewhere that warrants a political discourse, i have no hesitations about answering with my beliefs about the irreversible damage that we’re doing to the planet and ourselves, or even engaging in related conversations about political stands in general. however, if the context is just a little fun bikey piece on someone’s blog — ESPECIALLY someone who already subscribes to my belief paradigm, my inclination is far more likely to talk about the other things — how fun it is, how fast it is, how healthy it is, all the little connections to your surroundings that you find yourself experiencing…

    beyond that, and i mean this in the least insulting way, her comments just didn’t sound intelligent. the biggest problem we face whenever we take up any cause is sounding like we don’t know what we’re talking about. or worse, sounding opinionated. and janel sounded like both of those. the contradiction of riding a bike because one doesn’t want any part of air or noise pollution is so ludicrous that it effectively invalidates the whole argument. i know what she meant, and you know what she meant, and every cyclist everywhere also knows what she meant. but the people that NEED to know what she meant … won’t. why do staunch conservative elitists not pay any attention to us? or more appropriately, why are they able to disseminate our arguments so effectively? because we don’t sound like we know what the hell we’re talking about. or maybe more often, we use any and all opportunities to spout our beliefs. (“hey, how are you today, blair?” “i’m TERRIBLE because the GD government is restricting my freedom!”) how many times have you seen some representative of the liberal-minded get cut to shreds in a debate? i’d bet you’ve seen it a lot. how many times have you seen someone try and draw out a political conversation when someone’s just trying to have a chat? again, i’d wager the answer is “a lot.” it’s WHY we can’t enact change at the pace or to the scale that we want to. because we’re even WORSE than “them.” we’re salivating politicos, just waiting for the prey to let their guard down. nobody wants that, man.

    listen, i’m in complete agreement with janel’s beliefs. in fact, i SHARE them. but until we lighten up a little bit and know when and where it’s appropriate to blow up, we’ll never get anything done.

    of course, i don’t know what the hell i’m talking about either, so…

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  22. Just smoke crack bike advocates are all a bunch of dumb monkeys anyway I personally think beautiful women on bikes is the way to go and that cranky inflammatory statements are nit effective. The problem is a lack of realistic effective advocacy. When killer designs do grind people down and others turn their backs this is a problem or even worse if they just cry about it or have a candlelight vigil…the censorship of trying to actually change the situation us far more damaging then censorship of crying about it

    • Do you not think beautiful men on bikes will also be a good strategy? Hey, let’s not even get into your obvious heterosexist bias…many great bicyclists are neither beautiful nor handsome. You seem to have a problem with that.

  23. The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition (SFBC) has become a self-serving bunch of wishy-washy yuppie wannabes who seek the limelight as a career booster, they care nothing about bicycle advocacy. You’d be better off as an independent bicycle activist, than wasting your money and time on such a sellout group of pseudo-progressive monkeys.

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