Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Othering: How the language we use creates an unhealthy transportation system

Man, woman, black, white, gay, straight, young, old, rich, poor; as humans we really like labels. The problem is that we use these labels on people as a way to differentiate, which can lead to making people who are different than us seem less human.

If you look at racism, sexism, ageism, and homophobia, they are really all just ways in which we single out and degrade people that are different than ourselves based on a label. The general term for this is called “othering.” It was first used in this context by mid-twentieth century feminist scholar Simone de Beauvoir.

So, why am I bringing up this concept of “othering” on a blog post about transportation?

I was at a shop the other day, where I happened to know the owner. I mentioned the news from a few weeks ago about the person who was killed when cycling in Surrey. I was a bit shocked when the store owner said that the cyclist deserved to die because all cyclist ride dangerously. The store owner told me that they hated cyclist.

This is an example of “othering.” The store owner used the label of “cyclists” to dehumanize the person who was killed. Otherwise, how could this generally rational store owner be so happy about the death of another person? Another person who’s only known different was that they used a bicycle to get around. If this store owner used a bicycle to get around, would that death elitist the same response?

“Othering” is very common when there is a lack of understand and exposure to different ideas, people, or ways of doing things.

In the South of Fraser, we don’t have an extensive cycling network. Because we don’t have an extensive network, not a lot of people ride bikes to get around. Where we do build cycling infrastructure, it is normally in the form of shoulder bike lanes. Only about 10% of the population will ride a bicycle on the street or in shoulder bike lanes. Off-street or protected bike lanes are needed to encourage the majority of people to cycle.

So in the absence of proper cycling infrastructure, most people’s only exposure to people who cycle are of the 10% of the population that takes higher risks.

By building safer cycling infrastructure, more people will cycling. More people cycling themselves to get around, or knowing someone that cycles to get around, will go a long way to reducing “othering” in this context. It would also reduce the irrational conversations that come up when people talk about cycling in the region.

Beyond cycling infrastructure, the way that we talk about our transportation system’s users lends itself to “othering.” We use terms like motorist, cyclist, or pedestrian. “That cyclist just blew through the stop sign!” “That motorist almost hit me in the crosswalk!” “That pedestrian just jaywalked across the street!”

What would happen if we just talked about transportation system users as people? “That person just blew through the stop sign!” “That person almost hit me in the crosswalk!” “That person just jaywalked across the street!”

If we start thinking about how our transportation system can best serve people as opposed to motorists, cyclists, transit riders, or pedestrians, we would actually get a very different kind of transportation system.

The words we use have a profound effect of how we view the world. The way that we use labels for people who use various components of our transportation system leads to “othering” which leads to unhealthy dialogue about our transportation system. It even mode-biases how our transportation system is designed.

We need to start thinking about our transportation system in term of people, and not by the mode in which people choose to use.

1 comment:

AnagrammaAmmargana said...

Wow! Very, very well said-- You're right, many would automatically think, "WTF? What does this have to do with whether or not I choose alternative modes of transportation?!"

Really, our categorical confusion of 'useful linguistic tool' with 'ultimate reality' is a widespread and wholly misunderstood concept which should actually be incorporated into Kindergarten experiences to avoid this state of collective blindness into our 'adult' years and beyond...to our descendants benefit, we have the duty to act in light of.....

These 'not-us' delusions lead to all kinds of atrociousness--ALL wars, holocausts, genocides, environmental destruction, social distortions, bullying, lynching, general oppressions and global degradation (any of earth's systems--which unquestionably includes US), Our use of 'otherness' in terms of this planet and the living lands we are a part of IS HOW WE CONTINUE TO DEVOUR RESOURCES LIKE THE EARTH WASN'T OUR 'MOTHER'...IT IS NOT OTHER--IT IS OUR MOTHER. :)

Otherness, other-ing, psychological creation of (perceived) separation, me-you-they-'US'.....
"How categorical thinking leads to racism' Social Psychology with Scott Plous, from Wesleyan University on Coursera.