Happy Hat Land vs the Elephant & Castle roundabout

When my daughter was little, she was in a play called ‘Happy Hat Land’.

Its moral was that ‘sharing can be fun’. Unfortunately, the lesson she took from it at the time was more along the lines that sharing is a bit rubbish.

(The reasons for this are a bit complicated but revolve around the dissonance between the play being about sharing and the lack of sharing actually happening in it.*)

That sharing isn’t always fun is also one conclusion from a recent Twitter spat about cyclists and cars sharing London roadspace.

With increases in the number of cyclists in recent years it’s not surprising that there are more of these kinds of flashpoints.

Especially as, in policy terms, it’s been an area of mostly failure to face up to difficult choices, with a preference for more tentative tinkering through fake infrastructure and essentially perfunctory changes.

The fact of more people cycling makes sharing the space more problematic but it also begins to shift the balance of interests.

Cycling has been pushing itself up the agenda-setting hill for a while. Cycling was raised as an issue in the 2012 Mayoral elections (by Londoners on Bikes), and now cyclist groups are beginning to adopt more activist tactics, such as the recent die-in outside Transport for London.

I’m definitely not suggesting any sort of equivalence in the issues, but just in terms of strategy, this reminds me of Martin Luther King’s logic for using non-violent direct action within the civil rights movement.

In Stride Towards Freedom, his description of the Montgomery bus boycott, he notes that protestors “are not creating a cleavage but are revealing the cleavage which apologists of the old order have sought to conceal”.

It’s about bringing to the forefront the latent tensions.

And highlighting that whenever there are multiple and (inevitably sometimes) incompatible calls on finite resources – in this case space (and time) – there are choices to be made about whose interests prevail. 

This is in Stephen Lukes’ ‘dimensions of power’ territory – where power is not just about who wins out in decision making (‘visible power’) but also how and why some issues tend to be excluded with others – helmets etc in the case of cycling – dominating instead (‘hidden power’).

Sometimes it needs a forceful challenge to the status quo to get an issue or concern onto the table.

Or even for an issue to be surfaced as an issue in the first place.

According to Lukes, power also operates at the level of the underlying ideologies and norms that shape, and prescribe, people’s awareness of their own rights and interests. This – often unconscious – understanding influences how issues are seen and interpreted (‘invisible power’).

The spate of deaths of cyclists in the autumn represented a number of individual tragedies. There have also been wider social and political repercussions.

For me personally, the coverage has led to me feel a bit more unsafe cycling but most of all it has made me more conscious of how unpleasant cycling in London actually often is, and that things could and should be different.

Over the years, it’s something I’d just got used to, something that became tolerated, passively accepted, normalised. But when new understandings or new realisations emerge, previous norms about what is accepted as a natural state of things may no longer apply.

Campaigning can help turn prevailing assumptions that everything’s fine on their head, opening up new space for movement.

In different ways, No More Page 3 and the tax justice campaigns, for example, have taken issues that were hardly in the public domain, hidden or invisible issues, and very quickly turned them into very live and relevant issues. This is partly down to smart campaigning but it also reflects that these were issues just waiting to be made into campaigns.

Sometimes, as soon as there is a campaign about an issue, it feels odd why there wasn’t one before.

And that’s why some of the best campaigning looks way beyond current debates and agendas. It shapes new ways of thinking about things, and promotes solutions for previously unacknowledged problems.

 

(*eg that she didn’t even get to wear the hat)

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