Scene: Morning in the cafeteria of Facebook Seattle. It’s a typical Pacific Northwest winter day. Heavy gray clouds hang over the Seattle skyline and the constant drizzle makes the asphalt glisten. A dozen computer programmers, all dressed in jeans in hoodies, sit around tables eating scrambled eggs with one hand and holding their smartphones with the other.
BRIAN enters the cafeteria. He’s wearing a stereotypical yellow biking raincoat (wet), shorts that end awkwardly just past his knees, dark striped wool socks, and waterproof shoes. A messenger bag is slung over his shoulder. He grabs a plate of scrambled eggs and walks to a chair by COWORKER, one of the hoodie-clad programmers. He puts his messenger bag on a neighboring chair and sits next to COWORKER.
COWORKER: Looks up from his smartphone. Oh, hey.
COWORKER glances back and forth between his phone and BRIAN a couple of times, then puts his phone down and looks fully up at BRIAN.
COWORKER: So, did you bike in today?
BRIAN: Yeah. I ride in almost every day now.
COWORKER: Wow. Isn’t it dangerous?
BRIAN: No, it’s not too bad. I get to ride on the Burke-Gilman trail part of the way. Then I bike down Eastlake Avenue. There are enough other bikers that I feel like drivers know to watch for us. I also try to time my commute for rush hour, because cars can’t park in the right lane then. Bikes get plenty of space.
COWORKER: (Skeptically.) I don’t know… Eastlake, ugh. I wouldn’t bike there.
BRIAN: It’s not too bad.
COWORKER: I know you’re not going to see it this way, but it actually seems kind of irresponsible to me.
BRIAN: Wait. What do you mean?
COWORKER: Well, first, you haven’t convinced me that biking isn’t dangerous. Just that maybe it’s less dangerous than I was assuming.
BRIAN: But how is that irresponsible?
COWORKER: It’s irresponsible because you don’t have to do it at all. You’re choosing a dangerous way to get to work when you could drive or take the bus instead.
COWORKER: And don’t give me any excuses about exercise or the environment. You work at Facebook. You can afford a gym membership. And if you’re worried about the environment take the bus or get a damn Tesla. You’ve got kids, right?
COWORKER: Look me in the eye and tell me you’re doing the right thing for the kids. When you’re bleeding on the side of the road, I can tell you both they and you would wish you’d bought that Tesla instead. Irresponsible.
BRIAN is silent for a few moments, and he stares at the ceiling. Then he speaks.
BRIAN: This conversation is nauseous.
COWORKER: Sorry, I didn’t mean to attack you. I just have some strong feelings here is all.
BRIAN: No, that’s not what I meant. Do you know the difference between “nauseous” and “nauseated?”
BRIAN: Something that causes nausea is nauseous. When you experience nausea, you are nauseated. Most people use the word “nauseous” wrong their whole lives. This conversation would have been much clearer if we had a similar distinction with the word “dangerous.”
COWORKER: What do you mean?
BRIAN: You asked me, “Isn’t it dangerous?” There’s ambiguity there. Are you asking me if biking causes danger, or if biking exposes me to danger?
COWORKER: I think it was pretty clear in context. Besides, “dangerated” isn’t a word, so I couldn’t really do better.
BRIAN: But I think we’re getting away with some sloppy thinking because we’re not being clear about cause and effect here. Hmm… dangerous, dangerated… wait! “Dangerous” / “vulnerable” captures the distinction. Let’s confine “dangerous” to meaning “causes danger,” and “vulnerable” means you’re on the receiving end of danger.
BRIAN: So the question you meant to ask is, “Aren’t you vulnerable when you bike?”
COWORKER: Sure. But I don’t see how that changes anything.
BRIAN: It changes everything! The first, wrong question, “Isn’t it dangerous?” is evasive and incomplete. It’s just like the sentence, “Mistakes were made.” Both leave out the primary actor. With the dangerous/vulnerable distinction, we can now capture cause and effect in the question. The full question should be, “Aren’t you vulnerable to drivers when you bike?”
COWORKER: I still don’t see why this matters.
BRIAN: When we misused “dangerous” and worked with the unquestioned assumption that “biking to work is dangerous (just to a debatable degree),” then one of the obvious choices is to stop doing the dangerous activity. As you pointed out, it seems irresponsible to do anything else. But with the “dangerous” / “vulnerable” distinction, the choices look different. When I choose to bike to work, I am vulnerable. When I choose to drive to work, I am dangerous. What’s the responsible thing to do?
COWORKER: Wait a sec, just being a driver doesn’t make you dangerous.
BRIAN: I try to drive safely, sure. But I’m still capable of causing harm, and that makes me dangerous. All it takes is me being in a rush, or distracted, or tired…
COWORKER: It’s still pretty obvious to me that it’s better to drive. I’ll take steel armor and airbags over a helmet any day, and I know my family appreciates that choice.
BRIAN: That’s fine, and I understand that. However, you didn’t start by talking about personal choice. You said it was irresponsible to make another choice. I don’t think it’s that clear-cut. Maybe choosing to be vulnerable rather than dangerous is the morally right thing to do.
COWORKER: This is crazy. You don’t have any sort of social obligation about how you get to work. As long as we’re playing with words, pretending you’re making the “morally correct” commute decision is the very definition of “smug.”
BRIAN: Puts his head in his hands. Whoa, yeah, I got a little carried away with the rhetoric there. Truth be told, I bike to work because I like to. It’s practical. It’s as simple as that. I feel safe when I ride, but maybe that’s because I’m naive and overconfident. I really haven’t thought about it that much.
COWORKER: You’re on to something with the dangerous/vulnerable thing, though. It’s something I haven’t thought of before. It’s always seemed a no-brainer that, if you can afford it, you’re better off in a car. But I didn’t make the connection that it’s not a free choice. Each new person in a car is one more potential danger to others. Those add up, I guess. This is like that “You’re not stuck in traffic, you are traffic” mind game.
BRIAN: Exactly. If you’re not vulnerable, you’re dangerous. Except for those saints riding busses… they’re doing everything right.
COWORKER: Now that I think about it, I want more people out of cars and on bikes. Those stupid traffic-weaving law breaking bikers? I definitely don’t want them driving. Stay on bikes, please!
BRIAN: And reckless asshole drivers? We’d all be better off if they traded in their car keys for some U-locks.
COWORKER: Amen. Okay, maybe I’m coming to terms with a vision of a city where people can choose to bike without being crazy. I want to keep driving, though. I’m safe, and I’m not ready for your granola lifestyle.
BRIAN: Laughs. Fine. But please just remember, when I choose to ride my bike to work, I’m not doing something dangerous. I’m choosing to be vulnerable.
COWORKER: Yeah. Slowly: And I choose to drive, so I choose to be dangerous. Whoa. This gives me something to think about on the drive home.
BRIAN: Just please don’t it distract you!
BRIAN and COWORKER compost their breakfast plates and exit offstage.