In the south London borough of Southwark, where I used to live, there is a building I remember. A building made with typical brick, touches of art deco in its facades, built for the local government almost a century ago. Over the doorway, engraved in stone, the phrase, ‘The health of the people is the highest law.’ This is the detail I most remember about the building, marveling that there was a time when this was such an explicit aim of government. A little research shows the phrase comes from Cicero, and that the building indeed resides near Elephant and Castle (I have come across that delightful blog before). The sentiment expressed in stone seems as old-fashioned these days as the architectural detailing.
A phrase that has been sticking in my head recently is ‘the dominant narrative’. I don’t usually like to steer a personal blog into the political realm, but I have been finding it particularly depressing to read articles such as this one, and this one, from the world of politics and economics, and this, this, this and this dealing in the spectrum of race and power, where it is clear how much particular narratives reside at the forefront of cultural thinking, and how other ways of thinking continue to be marginalised.
To bring it back to a personal and more quotidian level, I have written about the ways I benefit from privilege, and it has often occured to me that the only time I get to experience life from a position of less power is when I am riding. The other day, on my way up Mount Tam, a couple of cars passed me in quick succession. The first I had heard coming up behind me (car drivers are probably not aware of how loud they are on less busy roads; I can very often hear cars coming from at least a hundred yards away). I had noticed the change of engine sound, which meant they were slowing down on the twisty road to wait for a safe moment to pass. Often I will move slightly to the left if I feel it isn’t safe for someone to pass, in an attempt to discourage them, and then swing further to the right when there is a clear stretch. The first car came by on a straight section, well to the left of me, in a way that felt courteous and appropriate.
I hadn’t heard the second car, because of the first, but as we approached a tight right-hander, he came by me at speed, well over the double yellow lines, but then cutting back in front of me. I don’t know how much visibility he had, but it did not seem in any way a safe manoeuvre. Had I time and occasion, I would have pointed out to the driver that – in addition to crossing the yellow lines in an unsafe way, seeming to be breaking the speed limit, and not allowing me the now legally-required three feet of space while passing – had someone been coming the other way (let’s say a car, though when I take these corners while descending on a bicycle, I will take the full lane in order to corner safely), the instinctive reaction of this driver passing me would have been to swerve right back into our lane, and either hit me, or force me off the road. I know this because it has happened to me – luckily I was riding at a slow enough speed that I was able to stay in control of my bike as the car cut across in front of me. Of course there was no opportunity for discourse, so my reaction, as it often is in such circumstances, was to make an angry gesture. Unsurprisingly, the driver wound down his window and returned the favour (I was reminded as I continued of the lines in the Dhammapada: ‘for hate is not conquered by hate: hate is conquered by love. This is a law eternal’).
This is a small and somewhat trivial example (I try, as I have written before, to balance my reaction of fear and anger from an experience of being endangered, with the occasions when drivers behave like the first driver in this story), but as I rode on, I thought of all the times when people in positions of less privilege are told that their responses are out of proportion, too angry, inappropriate, when no amount of reasoned discourse has met with any shift in the dominant narrative. Over time, as the old-fashioned slogan demonstrates, the narrative may bend, and we can only hope that it bends again to accommodate the well-being of all people. My feeling is that for that to happen, we all need to find the space and willingness put aside our attachment to ego and identity, especially when we are a part of the dominant narrative, and be able to listen to other stories and experiences.