Tuesday 9 July 2013

Free speech, tweeted threats and an angry Astoria van driver

It was one of my moral philosophy lecturers – I think it was Gordon Graham – who debunked for me an old – but rather flimsy – idea about the structure of the world. Addressing the idea that humans’ bodies and souls were somehow separate entities, he held up his hand, looked the other way and asked, “How do I know where my hand is?” The strong – unarguable, I think – contention was that people didn’t get their ideas about where their hands were across some barrier between the mind and the body. They knew where they were because their minds – which decided where they would put their hands – and their bodies – the hands that were moved – were the same things.

So I’ve been surprised over the last few weeks to notice a version of the mind-body separation hypothesis getting a new life among angry people on the Internet. I’ve pointed out to several people venting their frustration on Twitter that they’re potentially making their own lives difficult when they threaten (for example) to run over the next cyclist they see riding “in the middle of the road”. If they hit a cyclist with their car in the future – even unintentionally – the act will look deliberate and the charges will be more severe. Most prefer at that point not to reply. But a few have replied indignantly that nothing could be further from their mind when writing about crushing a cyclist beneath their car’s wheels than actually doing so. Their angry opinions and their blameless on-road actions are as separate as a classical philosopher would say a grubby body and a pure mind (or, in this case, a grubby mind and pure body) should be.

Angry Twitter users should love this rider on London's
Clapham Common. He's done as they've asked and got onto
the pavement to ride.
The incidents have made me ponder whether I’m somehow a humourless prude for failing to catch the innate hilariousness of someone’s warning that she’s going to “run over” the next cyclist she sees on the road rather than the pavement (sidewalk, American readers). Should I, as one of the “run over” woman’s friends suggested, simply “get a life”?

Or are these Tweets verbal expressions of attitudes that carry over into real-life driving behaviour and lead to real deaths and injuries? Are the opinions as inseparable from the drivers’ actions as Professor Graham’s hand and his mind?

The question is all the more pressing after a fortnight in the US when the Supreme Court has moved gays and lesbians a significant step forward in their struggle for equal rights, but moved black people several steps back. There’s no doubt that the growing unacceptability of racist and homophobic language has helped to move those groups’ struggles forward. Should it remain socially acceptable to threaten to drive one’s car over someone just because he or she has chosen to use a bicycle on a public road?

None of this, of course, is to deny Twitter’s ultimate triviality. For some time, the most retweeted message was a sickly sweet farewell by Justin Bieber to a six-year-old fan who'd died of cancer. The vast bulk of what appears there can be treated much as one might the rantings of the drunk at the next table in the pub. It’s mildly irritating - but something one can and should ignore.

There is, nevertheless, a direct, graphic quality to the threats some Twitter users make towards cyclists that makes them worthy of attention. In late June, one user, Ray O’Connor, tweeted this message for the next cyclist that he regarded as being too far out in the road: “I will buckle your back wheels c**ts #IWillRunYouOver.”. Another user, @brinky91, said in a now-inaccessible message around the same time that she would “run over” the next cyclist she found riding in the middle of the road. In April, another user, @LaurenKoerber tweeted: "I f***ing hate f***ing people that ride their bikes in the middle of the road.. Like you're not a car #iwillrunyouover."
Bad news for angry Twitter users: these riders on
the Manhattan Bridge have bikes and look likely to use them.
Good news: they're not on a road.
These are, I think, the kinds of threats that, expressed towards many other groups, would attract at least some attention from the police, interested to see how serious the threats’ makers were about carrying them out.

The threateners, however, seem almost as indignant at the idea that the threats are serious as I am at their making the threats. “I WASN’T REALLY GOING TO HIT A CYCLIST GEESH,” shouted one typical replier - @AMILLIAMELY - after I queried her suggestion that she might “gain points” in the game of road use by hitting cyclists who rode “in the middle of the street”. Others prefer self-pity, whining that they’re getting “grief” from “cycling fanatics”, as if that were an unusual result of making death threats to strangers in a public place. @brinky91 pleaded that her threats simply reflected her “opinion” to which she had a perfect right. People should leave her alone. @AMILLIAMELY went on to tell me that she simply liked to express her opinion about things that made her “mad” and that it helped her to feel better.

Yet the more I read such declarations of innocence the more I think about the fate of John Kelly, a cyclist who was riding his bike in Astoria, part of the New York borough of Queens in mid-March.  Mr Kelly was using a bike lane when witnesses saw a van come from behind him, swerve into the bike lane and hit him. He ended up clinging by the wipers to the windshield, the driver staring at him with what Mr Kelly called an “angry look” on his face. When Kelly managed to jump off, the driver escaped. Few regular urban cyclists will have been surprised at news of the van driver’s attack. It was merely an extension of the kind of aggressive, deliberately dangerous driving to which many of us are, unfortunately, used.
This cyclist on Glasgow's Cathcart Road is wearing
specialist clothes, is (rightly) well out in the road
and amid some traffic. He could be a perfect storm for
cyclist-haters' rage
The van driver’s attack so closely paralleled the kind of violent assault-by-motor-vehicle that I’ve seen Twitter users say they want to carry out that I can’t accept the two are entirely separate phenomena. It’s clearly better if the people with whom I’ve debated haven’t deliberately used their cars to hit people. But I found it hard to believe the claims of one indignant threat-maker that he was always a careful driver. Is it really credible that a driver who tweets after a trip that he would like to run over cyclists will carefully pass every cyclist he sees on his next trip patiently and at a safe distance? The threat-makers are almost certainly over-represented among people killing and injuring people riding on the roads.

Which leaves the question of @brinky91’s right to voice her opinion that she’d like to crush my body with her car.

There is no doubt that a civilised society has a huge interest in protecting the right to express a wide range of opinions – including ones that gravely offend other people. Free speech provides the fuel for the great race between ideas that makes free societies superior to closed ones. It mans the feeding stations in the great, ever-running stage race between ideologies. There need to be excellent reasons – protection of a person’s right not to be unjustly defamed, for example, the prevention of direct incitement to violence and the protection of a handful of official secrets – to put serious curbs on the right.

But it remains absurd for people voicing an opinion to complain that others loudly disagree. It is as if Chris Froome were to take to complaining in the coming weeks that other riders were attacking him on mountain stages of the Tour de France. There is occasionally an unpleasant whiff of bullying about the way Twitter users can round on someone indulging in unpopular speech, bombarding him or her with messages of protest. But, in cases where someone has threatened real, graphic violence as some of those I have mentioned did, it seems perfectly reasonable that he or she should understand how many of the verbal attack’s victims strongly resent that language.

Speech, after all, is valuable precisely because it is an echo-chamber, amplifying our thoughts and allowing us to try out ideas about the world before taking them from our brains to our hands. I feel constrained as I cycle around New York to behave well precisely because I have written here that everyone should do so. I can’t help thinking that motorists whose Tweets about maiming or killing cyclists have received only the sneering agreement of their friends will feel justified in driving far less carefully. If I have a choice between fending off dangerous driving with a swift brake application and evasive manoeuvring or a few strokes on a keyboard, I know which I’m going to choose.

You can follow the Invisible Visible Man - who promises never to threaten another road user's life - at @RKWInvisibleman


  1. I love reading your stuff. #justsayin

  2. Good post. I'm a pedestrian and dislike the behaviour of a lot of motorists and cyclists, but people should not say those things on Twitter or Facebook. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-23188875 has an interesting article on whether people should be allowed to come out with the type of remarks on social media you write about.

  3. Brilliantly put. Will add a link to this in Cambridge cyclist blog.

  4. Another enjoyable blog, thank you.

    Where is my soul? As a pub-theologian I've been reflecting on the idea that our 'heart and mind' might be one thing; that our physical presence is an expression, in the world we can see, of something more true about ourselves.

    What we say and what we do are reflections of what we believe. What we say is more easily influenced by what we want others to believe we believe, and what we do is influenced by how convinced we are that what we say is what we believe.

    I also agree that when we verbally promote good behaviour on the road, we take additional responsibility to physically model that good behaviour. I'm (personally) taking that to include not shouting at motorists, but in some cases to simply assume they made an honest mistake. I don't want to contribute to their anger and influence further bad decisions down the road.

    1. On the general assumption that most people are not actually murderous, I can therefore only conclude that they people who endanger my life on a nearly daily basis are doing so unintentionally.

      That doesn't mean I shouldn't shout at them, or otherwise indicate they have done something wrong. On the contrary, they have the possibility to change whereas someone being deliberately intimidating is much less likely to change. How will they ever be better drivers if they have no indication they have done something wrong?

    2. I'd be careful with that. Sometimes a driver who made a mistake actually becomes murderous once that mistake is pointed out to them.

    3. It's far, far more likely that they are entirely ignorant of their failures as a driver. Admittedly shouting at them immediately is not necessarily the most effective way of communicating this, but the only one available in a matter of seconds. They may reflect on it later, or they may not. They're not going to become a worse driver because of it.

      The biggest killer of cyclists is complacency in driving standards. Deliberate harm is so far down the list that I can think of less than a handful of cases, in hundreds over years.

  5. Great post, and you've inspired me to return to this topic with some thoughts that have been brewing these last few months http://icycleliverpool.co.uk/2013/07/09/808/

    These kids really ought to be a lot more careful about what they say in public, but then, they've grown up with Twitter and the process of putting every idiotic mindless piece of mind-vomit into the public domain to be recorded for posterity and they don't understand the consequences of that.

  6. Perhaps you'll be comforted to know that Justin Bieber no longer holds the record for most-retweeted tweet.


    1. Ian,

      I should have checked that point. Apologies. I wrote a fair amount of the post with little Internet access.

      I much prefer it that Barack Obama has the record.


    2. I've now updated the post to reflect, you know, reality and stuff. Thank you for pointing out my error.

  7. I wonder, what is the usual reaction when threats of violence to cyclists who take a central position in the traffic lane are met with the factual information that the middle of the lane is the safest position for cyclists to ride? Does that make any difference? Do the threat-makers understand this, or are they wholly ignorant of cycling safety? If the latter, does the information change their tune at all?

    1. The usual response from a tweet that "riding on the sidewalk is illegal in many states" or "bikes are vehicles and have the same rights as cars" is one of annoyance. Either they strike back with some personal attack or claim they are being 'picked on' by cyclists.

      I haven't seen any major shift in behavior or gotten the sense of an educational moment. Many people use twitter to vent and don't want or expect a response contrary to their point, only agreement is acceptable.

    2. I have seen a few people respond nicely, apologise and come to some kind of understanding after people picked up on their nasty tweets. But I've also had a fair number of people (and sometimes their charming chums) come back straightforwardly abusive. I've blocked most of those people.

    3. I should perhaps have linked, incidentally, to an earlier post that has some bearing on these issues. There is a problem of "asymmetric information". Cyclists tend to know quite a lot about their own rights and road rules generally (because it's an unusual and thought-through decision to become a cyclist). Motorists in general are less well-informed: http://invisiblevisibleman.blogspot.com/2013/04/a-broken-down-church-and-broken.html

  8. We have an endemic problem with a culture of bullying on the roads, this goes all the way back to Mr Toad, it has been re-enforced by years of "road Safety" campaigns which blame the victim. The question now is how do we bring about the end of this culture of bullying?

    How go we get people to understand there is no right to drive (you are only permitted to drive a motor vehicle on the public road under licence). How many motorists actually think about why they have to take a test before they are permitted to drive (without supervision) on the public road? How often do you hear the words of the pub bore that "you only learn that to pass your test" repeated? At the end of the day all a driving test can show at that they showed the ability to drive to a minimum safe standard for ~30 minutes on one day in their life.

    We need to change the conversation. We need to take the same approach to bullying on the roads to all other forms of bullying and threatening behaviour. We have to make it clear that it should not be socially acceptable to discriminate against people (or indeed to put their lives at risk, let alone kill them) just because of their choice of transport.

    A few years back an insurance produced a report which estimated there were 800 deaths a year in the UK due to "disrespectful driving", this dwarfs deaths from "terrorism" and yet it is ignored, quietly swept under the carpet. Why? Because it would mean facing up to the motoring lobby? Because people would have to accept that they are responsible for their actions when driving, that driving is a fundamentally dangerous activity? It is time for change.

  9. Excellent Post as always, thanks Invisible. Now put down twitter and go for a quiet ride :) Cheers, Doug

    1. Doug,

      Thank you. It's a good point that there's very little actual cycling in here. It was pretty much all written while I was away for a week in the UK with no access to a bike (and very little access to the Internet, either).

      Fear not, however. I had a lovely nine-mile commute in from Brooklyn this morning and look forward to a similarly marvellous ride home this evening. The only thing that could have improved this morning's ride would have been if it had been a little less hot and humid and I hadn't left my shirt neatly folded up on the kitchen table instead of putting it in my bag...

      All the best,


    2. Doug,

      I can now indeed report that I had a very pleasant ride home - albeit it gained added edge from the occasional downpours that are such a feature of a humid New York summer's night.


  10. In civilized countries, people that use the internet to utter death threats are promptly arrested. See, for example:


    In New York, if a violent, dangerous criminal car driver endangers my life out on the road, I have a legal right to kill the car driver in self-defense.

    Although I utterly abhor violence, I am not an Army veteran because I am a pacifist. I believe that there are situations where we have not only a legal right to self-defense, but a moral and ethical duty to act to protect the innocent.

    In other words, if I fail to act and a violent, dangerous car driver goes on to kill or seriously injure someone else, then I bear a measure of moral and ethical responsibility for having failed to act.

    1. Kevin,

      I'm strongly in favor of making sure drivers that endanger people are tackled, preferably before they do someone serious harm (see, for instance, this post: http://invisiblevisibleman.blogspot.com/2013/06/citibikes-drivers-and-science-of-moral.html). But there are all kinds of problems with using violence of any kind (or damaging property) beyond what's strictly necessary to defend oneself.

      Not least of the problems is that everyone's fallible (especially when feeling threatened). It's never a good idea to do something one can't immediately undo if one turns out to be mistaken. Words are more easily taken back than injuries.


    2. Yes, you are right. The best situation is where it is not necessary for me to use violence at all because a proper police force investigates criminal acts and promptly arrests violent, dangerous criminals.

      I'll give an example. Vladimir Rigenco is one such violent, dangerous criminal. He lives in a Toronto suburb. Mr. Rigenco bragged in an online forum about driving his German luxury car at 100 km/hr (62 MPH) over the speed limit in a residential neighbourhood.

      Someone complained to the police. Immediately a team of police officers sprung into action. They knocked on doors throughout the neighbourhood and turned up witnesses to Mr. Rigenco's offence. Mr. Rigenco was charged with Dangerous Driving (good for 5 years in jail) and pled guilty to the lesser charge of Careless Driving (good for six months in jail).

      Details here:


      Contrast this with New York where we all know that a complaint about a violent dangerous car driving criminal to the New York Police Department will result in them doing... nothing.

      We do not live in a New York where a complaint about a dangerous driver results in a team of police officers springing into action and knocking on doors to successfully find witnesses to the crime. And then laying appropriate criminal charges with appropriate jail time.

      So unfortunately we are forced back onto second-best. Which is our legal right to individual and collective self-defense in the face of violent, dangerous criminals.

    3. Kevin,

      Those are reasonable points. I wish, wish, wish the NYPD would come to its senses on these matters (and a quick trawl through recent posts will reveal a number of reflections on how they might be brought to their senses).

      I purposely didn't get into the issue of when people tweet about real driving offences. That's largely because there's a high-profile case currently making its way through the English courts. The UK has strict rules preventing the discussion of criminal cases before they come to trial (a restriction on free speech that I largely support). So I've steered clear of any discussion of that aspect of the issue.

      All the best,


  11. IVM,

    In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says, “A good man brings forth good from the good treasure that is in his heart and the evil man brings out evil from the evil treasure that is in his heart. For the lips speak from the fullness of the heart.”

    And, another one of my favorite philosophers, Atticus Finch, says, "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."

    We just all need to be a little kinder, a little more forgiving, and a little less rushed.

    Still loving your writing...

    1. South Lakes,

      As you might have seen from my profile, my own attitudes to these matters are ultimately informed by my own Christian faith. As you've probably noticed from what I've written, my faith doesn't inform my attitudes as much as it should. I probably ought to have dwelt more on the spiritual aspects of this issue. It is the people's hatefulness that most depresses me. I don't quite know how to describe it except to say it's the opposite of elevating.

      One scripture point did come to mind today, however, when I was pondering this matter further. It struck me that, whether or not these people actually drove in such a way they were likely to crush people, they had certainly committed murder in their hearts.

      All the best,


  12. Here's a good test for the authorities: What would the reaction be if the tweeter said what he would do and the target was a police officer?


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