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On Language

August 13, 2012

I hate to say I told you so, but here’s what I wrote about the DOT’s “Don’t be a Jerk” campaign in April, 2011:

…the “Don’t Be a Jerk” PSAs use the language of the bike backlash itself, indelibly linking the words “jerk” and “cyclist” together in the minds of people already inclined to think that cyclists are jerks. Plastering the city with billboards with these words may have the unintended effect of reinforcing the commonly held idea that cyclists, unlike motorists, are only as deserving of dedicated infrastructure as their behavior proves them to be.

And here’s what the Daily News editorial board published today:

What’s worse than a bicyclist who willfully disobeys the law? A bicyclist who willfully disobeys the law, gets caught and then whines about it.

Case in point: David Segal of Brooklyn, former communications director for City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, poster boy for obnoxious two-wheeling and perfect target for the city’s “Don’t be a jerk” campaign.

They continue:

Then — here’s the topper — Segal said was he ticketed last weekend for running a red light on Central Park West — “in an area without a street intersection! This is now four tickets for going through red lights in less than a week.” Good, jerk.

Emphasis mine.  I have no commentary on Segal’s “lawlessness” because it’s not the point, nor is it the Daily News editorial board’s point either, which merely uses the rare case of a cyclist getting four tickets at once as an opportunity to attack the Bloomberg administration.  The real point is something that any politician trained at the Frank Luntz school of messaging already knows: never use language you don’t want your opponents to use against you.  (There’s a reason it’s called the Affordable Care Act and not, say, the Everybody Will be Forced to Buy Insurance Act.)

Sixteen months after it debuted, the legacy of DBAJ is not a better class of cyclists or more civilized streets, but a very sharp arrow in the tabloids’ anti-bike quiver.

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