"Stray Dog Complex": a Brazilian trait

Since last month, cyclists in São Paulo have been able to make use of a new, innovative service: a bike-sharing app that doesn’t rely on traditional bicycle docks. Everything is operated through the use of a smartphone. Already a hit in China, this kind of service is new to Brazil – and, apparently, we aren’t ready for it. At least, that’s the conclusion of BuzzFeed Brazil, which, on August 21, published the post “11 images showing why Brazilians might not be prepared for shared bikes.”

The piece compiled social media entries depicting bicycles that belong to Yellow, the new bike-sharing startup launched in August, which has been vandalized, broken or stolen. As the article went viral, several Twitter and Facebook users noticed that the tone of the piece suggested our country was not good enough to have such an “advanced” mode of transportation. São Paulo has two bike-sharing services based on docking stations (both started between 2012 and 2013). Yellow is the first to allow cyclists to park their bicycle anywhere.

Bruno Ferrari, a columnist at news radio CBN, made the important point that issues with dockless bike-sharing systems are not exclusive to Brazil. Several other cities around the world saw shared bikes being vandalized, stolen, broken or simply thrown into rivers. In the capital of the United States, The Washington Post reported on July 1 that “theft and destruction of dockless bikes [is] a growing problem.”

yellow stray dog

Bikes: a door into our stray dog complex

According to the newspaper, up to 50 percent of the city’s fleet has been lost. GoBee, a Hong Kong startup, decided to pull out of French cities after reporting losses of 60 percent of its bikes. The Financial Times reports that even in Amsterdam, one of the cycling capitals of the world, a similar service, called White Bikes, closed in just a few days because users stole and threw the bicycles into the river.

In spite of what pessimistic and self-loathing social media posts might have you believe, Yellow has stated that the losses in São Paulo are below its predictions and its operation has not been compromised. On September 3, the company said that it registered more than 40,000 trips in its first month of operations. It started with 500 bikes at the beginning of August; now there are 2,000. Folha de S.Paulo reported that, unlike other bike-sharing services that operate in the city, Yellow has expanded its operation to peripheral neighborhoods. By the end of the year, the company plans to have 20,000 bikes. In 2019, that number will be 100,000.

Stray dog complex

So why were Brazilians so quick to focus on the bad side of this story? And why would BuzzFeed decide that we might not be prepared for Yellow bikes when other countries don’t seem to be doing such a great job themselves?

In the 1950s, journalist and playwright Nelson Rodrigues wrote that Brazilians suffer from what he called a “stray dog complex.” In essence, Brazilians usually think we (and the country as a whole) are below the rest of the world. Whenever there is a chance to put the country and its people down, Brazilians will do it in a heartbeat. And let’s be honest, the Yellow bikes affair was the perfect opportunity for our self-deprecating habits to rise again.

Instead of analyzing the company’s data and comparing São Paulo to other places – which would show that things are in fact going rather well (or at least not worse than elsewhere) – the knee-jerk reaction is to say Brazil is not prepared to have such a service.

Philosopher Roberto Romano, a professor at the University of Campinas, believes this tendency to put Brazil down has roots in colonial times. He says that colonizers forbade anything that could spell cultural, technical, social or religious improvement for the natives. Early Brazilians were not allowed to patent inventions, and universities were only available abroad.

Race issues

There is also a racial issue, Mr. Romano says. Even though some intellectuals and writers try to downplay the role of racism in the fabric of Brazilian society, slavery and the war on native Brazilians are undeniable factors in the makeup of modern day Brazil. “In the 19th century, with the doctrines of the white man and cultural superiority, the country saw intense propaganda about the inferiority of popular classes”, Mr. Romano says.

To try to whitewash the population, governments were invested in bringing European immigrants to work and live in the country. The basis of this thought was the theory of eugenics, which managed to influence scientists and policymakers in Brazil. In the early 20th century, Mr. Romano says, books circulated showing Brazilian’s inherent inferiority. “Renowned educators, such as Fernando de Azevedo, a very important figure in academia in the South and São Paulo, took eugenics as something right and to be followed,” says Mr. Romano.

This cultural trait has endured throughout the 20th century and is still felt. According to a poll, 62 percent of Brazilians between ages 16-24 would leave the country if they could. The United States is the top destination of choice (14 percent) for those who wish to flee, followed by Portugal (8 percent). The level of trust in general also provides an insight on how Brazilians see themselves: 91 percent of people believe their compatriots only want to take advantage of things. Only seven percent said they believe most people follow the rules.  

In Mr. Romano’s opinion, the only way to strengthen the country’s self-esteem is through the “concrete exercise of democracy, with is a precondition for equality, not only formally, but real.” The ones who are busy putting Brazil down, the philosopher believes, are in the upper classes and have an obsession with pleasing “the foreigners.”

In his opinion, “common people are more generous, less stuck to the ‘Bovary complex’ that leads the middle class to seek ‘ennoblement’ by acquiring foreign citizenship [from Portugal, Italy, or Germany], trying to run away from the country that gave them everything, including their academic knowledge.”

Perhaps Brazilians are prepared to have their dockless bike-sharing system after all. They are just blind to the fact that they are like any other people in the world – with their own flaws, shortcomings, skills, and qualities.

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BY Diogo Rodriguez

Rodriguez is a social scientist and journalist based in São Paulo.