Thursday, September 29, 2011

Why Sam de Brito needs to take a long hard look at himself

On the morning that my husband was to leave on a 850km bike ride to raise money for the John Hunter Children's Hospital (that's riding from the Gold Coast to Newcastle), I opened the newspaper to read an article by Sam de Brito lambasting cyclists. In his own words, 'the main thrust of the column is that cycling is the new golf, with the "same grim-faced, entitled white men who used to plague golf courses" now smugly telling you they've shrunk their carbon footprint since they traded in the Beemer for two wheels.'

I know that none of the accusations de Brito aimed at cyclists apply to my husband. I'm not worried about his individual reputation. But the problem is, de Brito is playing on an existing ill-feeling towards cyclists by many drivers, and to inflame this in any way poses a real risk to cyclists' safety. I'm not here to defend all cyclists and their behaviour. Sure, some of the stereotypes ring true. But the bottom line is: what is the point of picking on a whole group of people based on the actions of a few, especially if you are potentially putting them in danger by doing so?

There is a chance that people who already have a self-righteous sense of road ownership and hatred of cyclists will have had it inflated by reading that column, and will feel completely justified the next time they force a cyclist off the road. Clearly de Brito has no idea of the danger cyclists often face from aggro drivers. Either that, or he knows, but just doesn't care. OK, some cyclists are aggro too. But it's hardly a fair fight. Who's more likely to come off second-best- a guy on a bike or a guy steering a tonne of steel? And what has the fight between risk-taking cyclists and drivers full of road rage got to do with those cyclists who do follow the rules, who are being respectful, who enjoy the sport and would like to come home in one piece at the end of a ride?

Let me address a few of his claims directly.

"Correct me if I'm wrong but I reckon the average Chinese factory belching out carbon-fibre bicycle frames might make up for the fuel consumption of your former four-wheel-drive."

Um, you're wrong. The production of one carbon-fibre bicycle is nowhere near the carbon footprint of a four-wheel-drive, either in production or the energy it takes to run.

"Some bloke who doesn't even pay $700 rego wants to complain to me about my indicating while he treats red lights as suggestions."

Why do you think people would want to complain about your indicating? Perhaps because you left it till the last minute and nearly knocked some one off their bike? Not only that, most cyclists are motorists as well and do pay rego, which incidentally, has nothing to do with their right to complain about your indicating.

De Brito thinks "it's a sign of a critic being absolutely bloody spot-on when a person or group can't laugh at a barb". Does this mean that if you can't laugh at something, it must be true? If some one wished your dog dead because you don't walk it often enough, and you don't find that funny, is it because it's a bit close to the bone? No, Sam. It's just because it's hurtful, unnecessary, and NOT FUNNY.

Case in point:
"Part of me reckons the cycling fad has to do with blokes hating their families. Can't be bothered ferrying the kids to sport on a Saturday? Take up cycling, ride 100 kilometres down the coast and you don't have to see the little bastards until sunset."

Not close to the bone. Just not funny. My husband gets up at 5am each Saturday to cycle, comes home at 9.30 and spends the rest of the day with the family. Not at the pub, working or watching footy on TV.

"It's weird: blokes are getting around with tiny upper bodies, shaving their legs and looking like waifs and chicks are going to the gym to do boxing classes and get rock-hard abs.
Sure, cycling is health conscious and oh-so European but so is yoghurt and you don't need to wear hard-plastic ballet shoes to eat the stuff. Oh, but it relaxes you? Could've fooled me every time I get abused by some 60-year-old cardiovascular surgeon who thinks roads were purpose-built for his Raleigh."

Where to start with this doozy? Misogyny. Sarcasm. And again, Sam, why do you think you are
constantly being abused by cyclists? Could the common denominator be YOU?

He then uses one example of a rich guy in Africa employing an armed security guard on his ride, and finishes with 'Seriously. And we wonder why half the world wants to kill white people.' So let's trivialise racism and oppression while we're at it. I’m pretty sure the cyclists of the world are not to blame for the world’s inequality.

De Brito claims that he was just having a joke. Then when he received some heated responses to his article, he cried foul. His mature response on twitter to professional cyclist Mark Renshaw (who tweeted 'now we know your name' or similar) was 'beep beep, thud.’

De Brito seems to believe in that old Aussie chestnut, whereby if you complain about some one abusing you, 'you can't take a joke.' Seems like when the abuse is channelled back the other way, however, he isn't too keen either. The idea that you are humourless if you don't like being belittled is a fairly common one in mainstream Australia.

What was he hoping to achieve by this invective? Was the ultimate aim simply parody? Was he just trying to raise a laugh? That seems a bit pathetic when there are so many other social issues that could use the attention. And there are ways and means of gently roasting people so that they are in on the joke, so that they can have a laugh at themselves whilst retaining their dignity. It just takes a bit of wit and insight. Both of which de Brito is clearly lacking.

He accuses those who take offence at his insults as having had a 'humour bypass'. Well it seems to me that Sam de Brito has had a 'compassion bypass'. What he writes is just plain mean. Any schoolyard bully can come up with this stuff. It's not just cyclists that have copped it. He claims that cyclists, fat people, vegans and body builders - seemingly fairly disparate groups in society - are humourless. All four groups have reacted strongly to his ‘jokes.’ Maybe he needs to take a look at the common denominator there too - himself.

Face it: there are idiots everywhere. And cycling is no exception. But there is a difference between playfully having a go and reinforcing stereotypes that could potentially put the target of your invective in danger by inciting others to reckless behaviour. Thankfully my husband made it back from the Gold Coast safely. No thanks to Sam.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Twitter and friendship - part 2

In a recent post I talked about the nature of friendship, and how a question posed by my friend on twitter got me thinking about that topic.

All the articles I have read in the mainstream media talk about twitter as though it is full of braggarts and villains, or simply banal, needy people who want the world to bear witness to what they had for breakfast. But the journalists who write these articles are invariably the sort who have dipped their toe into twitter's waters just for the duration of the writing of the article. They have experienced the shallow end of the pool and inevitably come out disappointed, even smug ('I knew it would be like this'). Guess what? Twitter is like life. You get out what you put in. And, there are idiots who use twitter. You have to weed them out (or keep them around for comic value). You have to spend time carefully perusing your options, choosing who to follow, searching for quality with a fine-toothed comb. Or just follow randomly and take the job lot, the whole crazy kit and caboodle. Either way, it takes time. You're not going to jump on there and experience instant connection. What did you expect?

When I first joined twitter I felt a little like I had walked in to a party where I knew no one. I cleared my throat, tried to join in a conversation and wasn't always included. It felt faintly ridiculous. But then one day I saw my favourite radio host Carol Duncan was on twitter, and she only had 39 followers - I was her 40th (it must have been her second day on there, as her follower count is now approximately a squillion). She asked a question about comfort food and I jumped in to recommend fresh white bread with St Dalfour apricot jam. She responded straight away and my experience of twitter was suddenly transformed. Carol has since come to be some one I call a friend, and this fact alone is enough to give me cause to write a whole post on how worthwhile twitter is. Twitter is still our main source of interaction, but we also have the occasional IRL get-together. And that's my next point. Twitter is not some kind of platform to meet people and then carry on IRL. Twitter is often the mainstay of particular friendships. It gives you a whole new dimension when you are working, busy with family life, and just don't have the time or energy to organise to see people as often as you would like. It can keep you connected to people you would not have come across in any other avenue.

The other thing I love about twitter is the way you can people-watch. It's better than sitting in a cafe and watching people interact, because despite the lack of physicality involved, it's like you have suddenly become a fly on a wall. Sure, there is DM (direct messaging) and a lot more goes on behind those particular closed doors than the public is privvy to (I imagine many of us tweeps going pale with horror at the thought of some kind of malfunction involving public access to DMs!) - however! - I also think that there is an intimacy to twitter where you are witness to certain conversations which otherwise would happen say, in a cafe. Where leaning over your table to strain to eavesdrop in real life would be rude, on twitter, 'tweavesdropping' is de rigeur. You can jump into any conversation whenever you like, or simply observe what others are saying. It's fascinating to watch friendships develop, to see certain personalities gravitate towards each other, to watch them spill over into real life. I also find that there is a (perhaps false?) sense of privacy due to the tweeter being alone at their computer. If that same person was handed a microphone and asked to repeat their last tweet to a crowded room, it's doubtful many would do, and not just due to stage fright. It's easy to forget that you're being watched. And this can be a liberating thing, but it's something that you have to be mindful of lest privacy (your own or others) be breached with unintended consequences. (Repeat the mantra: boundaries are healthy!)

I have a handful of friends who are very dear to me who I originally met on twitter. I am not going to broadcast a list of names - they know who they are. One in particular is very far away and twitter is still our main medium of communication - as needs must. Just like life, I also have a wider circle of friends and acquaintances who I enjoy chatting to and interacting with. Unlike life, there is the extra advantage of people popping up for a chat who I don't know well, and the conversation taking off in unexpected directions. It's a lovely surprise when that happens, like finding myself next to an interesting guest at a dinner party. But without the social anxiety, or having to dress up, beforehand.

Twitter does have its downsides (one of which is, as I mentioned earlier, the ease with which you can forget just how public it is). Along with the obvious obnoxious know-it-alls espousing offensive views, there can be more subtle drawbacks. Like replying to some one a couple of times and never getting a response. Or, the inverse, worrying when you get a whole load of replies and have no time to reply to each one individually, not wanting any one to feel ignored. (Or that may just be me). Or....and this may be a controversial one but bear with me.... witnessing the rampant public displays of affection between tweeps who are just so overjoyed at being in each other's lives that they need to shout it from the rooftops at every given opportunity - I miss you so much, I love you, you're the best, when will we talk? etc etc. These are not exchanges between romantic partners (would I tolerate that better? no probably not) but friends, usually adult women. Every time I see such an exchange I get a twinge of - what? - nausea mixed with envy? Or maybe I'm just uncomfortable with such emotional outbursts. (I am actually quite private and take a while to get to the 'I miss you, I love you point' and even when I do it's not articulated as such).

It's silly because their being mad about each other doesn't have anything to do with me. Maybe I'm quietly impressed at their wild abandon and apparently boundless optimism. Or maybe I feel uncomfortable at the implied exclusion. For every couple of friends who miss and love each other terribly, there is the person sitting at the edge of the party feeling isolated, looking on while the popular best friends embrace. I'm not either of those people, but I do feel for the underdog. I'm very aware that at any given point there are people feeling unsupported and unloved, and besides the fact that I'm not big on PDA anyway, personally I wouldn't want to rub my great good fortune at having wonderful friends in their faces, any more than I would do as a loved-up couple in front of singletons. Maybe I'm taking too much responsibility for the lovelorn. Maybe it works in the opposite way - that lonely people witnessing such displays are buoyed by the idea that twitter is full of such love-ins. Maybe I do feel slight envy for the way these tweeps can throw caution to the wind and stride purposefully into the depths of friendship, but I also wonder how some of them can possibly love and miss so many people at once. Maybe they just have a lot of love to give, or maybe they are seeing the world through rose-coloured glasses that this cynic doesn't have.I also wonder how deep that love can be when the very nature of twitter is that you get to hold back and only show the very best of yourself. Or, maybe twitter really does enable ways of cutting through the bullshit and peeling back the layers and developing closeness between people that real-life encounters can often obscure. Maybe, somewhat paradoxically, all of the above is true. And despite my cynicism and concern for those excluded from the love parade, I have to admit that when some one shines it on me, I only squirm slightly in its light. I appreciate the gesture and am not so ungracious as to reject the sentiment. Rarely, rarely do I reply with miss yous and love yous of my own. Which doesn't mean I don't feel it in my own way. But my style is to show my regard in other ways - either DM or by action or simple attention to their stories. One of the reasons I don't do FF (Follow Friday which is recommendations of who to follow, in case any non-tweep is reading this) - is because I just cringe at the thought of leaving any one out.

Twitter is not every one's cup of tea. I have some real-life friends who don't get it. They wouldn't want to make time for it in their day. The people who love twitter do so for a variety of reasons. For some, it's their connection to the outside world. It's a life-line in an otherwise isolated life. Others use it for mainly social reasons, or to get information, to form ideas, be inspired. And yes, some people just use it to grandstand about what they had for breakfast. But I think if you want a balanced picture, you should get some one who has truly experienced twitter to write about it, not just any journalist with a passing interest. Because just like in real life, it takes all sorts.