In Defense of Riding Motorcycles

In Defense of Riding Motorcycles

When I initially picked up my ’78 CB750, it was just a mechanical project.

I wasn’t particularly handy with a wrench, and I wanted to fix that. Read enough Crawford or Pirsig, and you’ll understand my feeling on the subject. Of course, you don’t have to use a motorcycle for this purpose. You could just as easily use a regular car (or, really, any number of technological devices). Motorcycles are just nice because you don’t have to spend hours on your back.

But of course, they are fun to ride.

Maybe “fun” isn’t the right word. Video games are fun. Drinking is fun. Watching comedy is fun. Our chemically-enhanced, 1080p world is full of opportunities for controlled and mediated “fun.” But riding a motorcycle is different. It is unmediated:

You see things vacationing on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other. In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it, you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.

On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming. That concrete whizzing by five inches below your foot is the real thing, the same stuff you walk on, it’s right there, so blurred you can’t focus on it, yet you can put your foot down and touch it anytime, and the whole thing, the whole experience, is never removed from immediate consciousness.

– Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Riding a motorcycle feels real. It is a wonderful feeling of power, joy, connectedness, and the substance of the experience of life, maybe before self-consciousness, engrossed in the moment and the environment.

What this quote also vividly illustrates, however, is what every anxious hand-wringer thinks about.

‘You could hit that concrete.’

It’s true. Motorcycles aren’t safe.

It is my belief that they aren’t as inherently dangerous as the hand-wringers imagine (more on this shortly), but there’s no getting around it. They’re hazardous. On gravel, at night, in blind spots, or just in the wrong place at the wrong time, motorcycles don’t give the protection that a car offers. That visual frame that separates the passenger — or even the driver — from the experience of the outside world also protects them from that world. It’s made of crumpling metal and plastic and glass, and it is designed to insulate. The experiential separation is a byproduct of the physical separation.

Still, I do not think that motorcycles are as dangerous as people think. The problem is that they look dangerous. Presently, the media is worried about six people dying from vaping. Six! Where is the concern for the heart disease, the diabetes, the depression and suicide and other stress-related disorders that claim thousands of lives yearly, from sitting at desks? From reading too much news? Sitting at a desk will kill you, but slowly. It does not appear like a small, loud, zipping, unprotected death-machine.

5,286 motorcyclists died in 2016. When we subtract this from the 40,200 total traffic deaths in 2016, and do some rough mental heuristic gauging on the number of bikes we see on the road, it is clear that they are dangerous, but by no means a death sentence in the way they are talked about. Part of the problem: motorcycles are magnets to young men with high risk-tolerance and feelings of invincibility, far more so than average four-wheeled vehicles. These men also die in large numbers behind the protective frames of their Subaru WRX’s. Factor out this young male demographic, and you are left with a fairly uninteresting level of danger, probably comparable to rock-climbing or jogging in woods. And taking away motorcycles wouldn’t really protect this population anyhow. They would find some other way to chase what is valuable in motorcycle riding, but not limited to that one activity.

Motorcycles would not be as wonderful if they were not dangerous, but it is not the danger that is attractive. Danger is simply a byproduct of the wonderful quality of the motorcycle, relative to the ordinary car. I think the anxious hand-wringer’s fears about motorcycles are symptomatic of something far more pathological, an aversion to the thing that young motorcycle riders (and many others!) are after.

They seek responsibility.

I say this in the technical sense, not in the cultural sense ordinarily implied by the word: stodgy traditionalism and healthy fear of deviation from established norms. In actuality, “responsibility” means having power, and accountability for what you do with that power.

So perhaps “responsibility” is not the best way to talk about this. Perhaps Bronze Age Pervert comes closer to the mark when he describes the search for uncontrolled space:

A healthy animal not under distress, not maimed, not trapped by man, seeks first when young: space. Animal seeks space in physical sense, territory. But this meaning isn’t crudely physical, I give this as vivid image which is true for many animals that seek ownership of concrete territory. But more generally you must take it to mean something else, space to develop inborn powers. Monkey that lives in trees seeks skills to master canopy, beaver seeks ownership of river and banks and reeds in its grasp, many big cat of course seek mastership of actual territory and claims to prey and mates in this territory. Big feline, hunting dogs seek full use of claws, fangs, development of smell and other senses, to extend their reach over space. They seek these things because they want to master matter. All of this is higher organism organizing itself to master matter surrounding space. Successful mastery of this matter leads to development of inborn powers and flourishing of organism, which allows it to master more matter…

– Bronze Age Pervert, Bronze Age Mindset

The handwringers I refer to have been brought up in a moralizing culture that teaches them that they are not merely their brother’s keeper, but everybody’s keeper. Threats to others stress them out. They might lose sleep over starving children in Africa (more likely, they lose sleep over not losing sleep: “am I a bad person?”). The danger you impose on yourself by climbing a mountain, or getting on a motorcycle, raises their cortisol levels. This physiological effect seems to give them the feeling of a right to control the behavior of others, so as to reduce their own anxiety. In short, they think that “responsibility” means answering to other people — specifically, to worriers like themselves.

But this smothering control-dynamic is actually antithetical to real responsibility. True responsibility comes from cause-and-effect, not from social feedback. Yes, social feedback is a kind of effect, but when overly maternal worriers attempt to amplify their own opinion above other kinds of natural effects, they distort the learning process about actual relationships between things. Give enough positive feedback to a child when he says that five times seven is thirty (“because he’s close!”), and you might very well delay their comprehension of mathematical relationships, drowning true understanding in a tidal wave of emotion-laden false-positives.

Real responsibility is pursued because young people — perhaps young men in particular — know that responsibility is the father of power. Responsibility means thinking that five times seven is thirty, going to the store to buy seven five-dollar items, and finding out at the cash register that you actually can’t buy what you brought to the counter. Such an experience — where positive encouragement might flip suddenly to humiliation, resentment, and then indifference — would accelerate maturation in young people, perhaps by a few years.

This sounds like a digression, but the thought experiment is meant to illustrate a deeper point. Most people understand that other people’s opinions are not as valuable as direct feedback from reality.

You can never get this kind of direct, reliable feedback in a human-controlled environment. The “frames” of mediated entertainment, mediated transportation, mediated work, etc, all have two inseparable effects. First, they protect us. Second, in the words of Crawford, they “hide the works.”

What do they protect us from? The works, of course.

A motorcycle-related example, which also illustrates the short-sightedness of this maternalistic approach: cars have become more automated, more “automatic.” This is in part motivated by safety. The transmission is automatic — this is so that people do not have to learn how to change gears themselves, because they might damage the transmission, and it might put stress on your left calf in traffic. Everything is told to you in gauges so you no longer have to listen to the sound of your vehicle (which is insulated and muffled anyway), or watch your mileage, etc. And the gauges are made simpler, “idiot-proof.” This makes driving boring so manufacturers have installed all kinds of entertainment to occupy the mind. Radios, sleek aesthetics, phone holding devices and all kinds of legally-grey tricks allowing the driver to use their phone while driving. Fancy navigation, audio books, HUD information of little practical value, but looks cool.

Everyone knows that distraction is the primary cause of accidents. None of these distractions exist on a motorcycle. Yet motorcycels are “unsafe.”

Your life is in your hands, and you feel it.

In a car, your life is also in your hands, but that reality is a kind of distant, abstract theory. The car salesman, the manufacturer, the Department of Transportation, have all made assurances that this car is safe. The driver is offered the feeling of safety, because these distant others have put their name — their responsibility — behind your safety.

But it’s all bullshit. They won’t keep you safe. The motorcyclist knows this in his body. The car driver sometimes knows this, but it is an abstract idea. Easy to forget. Especially if AC/DC is playing on your radio with special-installed subwoofers on multi-colored radio.

Motorcycles represent a relatively — perhaps inherently — uncontrolled space. Not literal space, but a dimension of existence which physically cannot be controlled into safety. The reality is right beneath your feet; you can see it. Because of this lack of external social control, competence and skill on a motorcycle feel more “real.” There is no lurking concern that perhaps one’s expertise is just a facade, an illusion created in your head, or by others.

In this regard, motorcycles are a last outpost in a losing war: one of personal, independent competence against bubble-wrapped safety culture. A safety culture which will not, cannot, trust you to do anything. (The actuaries won’t allow it). They must impose best-practices from on high, and to do so, they must control as much space as possible.

These days, there is less and less space left to develop one’s own skill in freedom — to experiment, to try things out, without being watched. This is most obvious in the realm of intellectual debate, where censorship cracks down on anyone who “tries out” ideas that are softly prohibited by an increasingly vindictive elite tech-class (examples: what if communism is right? what if Nazism is right? what if 9/11 was fake, or Antarctica does not exist? more absurd: what if official holocaust count was a few bodies high?).

But it is also true in the physical world, where seat-belt and cellphone laws essentially establish the roadways as “controlled space.” There are even incentives against working on your own vehicle: doing so may decrease the resale value of your car, because maintenance was not performed regularly by a recognized mechanic. It goes without saying that there is significant pressure to reduce risks in MMA, in football, contact sports generally.  But the physicality is an aspect of the activities, and critical for the development of skills.

Christopher Hitchens once defined totalitarianism as this: anything that is not mandated is forbidden. Because the bubble-wrapped safety culture that actuaries and politicians and doctors and soccer moms want takes responsibility for others (one dead child is too many!), but cannot possibly take into account all relevant variables in all situations for action, their trajectory is to decrease the number of variables, in order to maximize control, and thereby, maximize safety. No private pools. No personal firearms. No motorcycles. Everyone must wear seat-belts.

Perhaps one of the reasons motorcycles are associated with freedom is this defiance of control. Nothing the hand-wringers do can actually make them safe. Maybe this is why they are taking the gun-control approach: first, you must wear helmets. Next, you must have special license. Next, 18 isn’t old enough; you must be 21. Perhaps they will increase safety requirements: a helmet isn’t enough, you must also have $2,500 in armor and gloves and whatever else they demand.

Really, they just don’t want you to ride.

But the bubble-wrapped safety world is a world in which skill is not possible, just as the world of automated cars they desire is a world in which driving skill will no longer exist.

I don’t ride my CB750 as a part of some moral crusade. I ride it because I enjoy it. If others don’t enjoy riding, that’s fine. They shouldn’t ride.

But I do continue to ride it, in spite of concerned protestations against such death machines, with a bit of a crusader’s spirit. I enjoy the feeling of control, the directness of experience with the machine and the hills around me, and the wind ripping at my shirt. Sometimes, the odd grasshopper hitting my thigh like a paintball at 75 mph. That directness is life itself: “presence” in the moment and in your environment, without separation.

The danger of motorcycling is not the aim, but it is an inescapable side effect of the directness of this experience. The unmediated nature of it all. Uncontrolled space. Responsibility. Skill. Those who flee from the danger flee from the good things that require danger too. Fine by me.

It’s a free country.

But I think it is better to accept the danger, learn to live with it, rather than fleeing from it. And the most admirable, competent people, living the best lives, seem to have similar approaches, whether that’s Jocko Willink living with snakes or Mike Rowe putting safety third.

Funny thing is, it is these sorts who accept the danger who seem to survive best, as well as live best. Because in the end, risk is inescapable. You can avoid much of it, sure. Don’t ride a motorcycle: you will reduce at least one vector of death. But those who make a habit of fleeing danger never learn to deal with threats. They never learn proper technique for navigating hazards. Of course the methods are always specific to the hazards, but the mindset is general. ‘What are the dangers?’ ‘What do I need to do to account for these, minimize chance of problem, and deal with should they appear?’ This pre-emptive mindset can be taken from crossing the street, and applied to construction, to personal health at a desk job, to dating. And to motorcycle riding.

I would never tell anyone to ride a bike who doesn’t want to. However, if someone does want to ride, but have been harassed by paranoid hand-wringers about horrible dangers of death machines, I think it is best to ignore these worriers. I think they exaggerate the dangers, but even if they were right, it would still be worth it. They are the great space-creators, the little engines of freedom and manual competence, demanding and developing both awareness and skill in all manner of ways, and vehicles of direct experience with what it truly means to live: in the world, and not outside, looking  in through a protective window.

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