Wow, did I pick the wrong time to write this post.
Yesterday, Head Overlord and All Around Great Person Dustin Rowles wrote this piece about trying to reach people with whom we disagree, instead of just writing them off as racist/sexist/queerphobic/all of the above garbage. And he’s right. Because he’s right, I’m trying really hard to take that lesson to heart. To explain my position to people not in ways that show my ethical or intellectual superiority, but in a way that effectively conveys why I believe what I believe. That kind of arguing requires that you believe the person with whom you disagrees: 1) truly wants what is best for most people, and 2) will respect you enough to believe the same of you. That’s a really tough olive branch to extend to
Trump supporters people with whom you have deep disagreements.
And as Dustin already stated, this default faith in people doesn’t mean we have to excuse racist behavior. It’s about trying to really reach someone by showing them a better way. It’s also why listening to this week’s This American Life made me want to say “Fuck that” and start lighting matches.
Ah-yep. See, Act One of the show this week was about Australian professor Eleanor Gordon-Smith, armed with a tape recorder, trying to convince men on the street that they should stop catcalling. It did not go well. Or more accurately, it went exactly as well as it could given our unwillingness to admit wrongdoing. A large portion of the Act was just a conversation Gordon-Smith had with one catcaller name Zac.
It’s an exercise in frustrating near-futility. Below are some of the more headache inducing quotes:
This is Zac and Mike. Zac and Mike shouted at me as I was walking across an alleyway. Eleanor Gordon-Smith: Do you want her to have fun, or are you just doing it for you? Zac: Oh, you know, I want her to get enjoyment out of what I yell at her. I don’t want her to be — in no way I want her to be offended, or feel in any way insecure about anything I say. It’s always — like, I’m never going to say anything rude or abusive. It’s always for the good of the night. Eleanor Gordon-Smith: OK. So it matters to you that she had fun? Zac: Yeah. 100%. Eleanor Gordon-Smith: OK. And do you, like, — do you count yourself as a good guy? Zac: Fucking oath, the best
Zac: I’ve done rude things, like I’ve run along to groups of girls on the street, and, like, complete random, and smacked one of their asses, like, one out of about 10. And all the rest are, like, fixated on, oh, my god, why was her ass slapped? And it’s enjoyable.
But it’s only enjoyable, he says, if the woman’s part of a group. He knows there’s a line you don’t cross. He’s just drawn it in a weird place.
Zac: Yes, if you single out a girl and slap their ass, it can be a little bit creepy. But I wouldn’t do that. I only slapped one ass of one group. I’m a one ass, one group guy. OK?
Eleanor Gordon-Smith: Would you have slapped my ass if I’d been closer to you?
Zac: If you were in a group, yes. If you’re on your own, no, I wouldn’t.
Eleanor Gordon-Smith: Why not if I was on my own?
Zac: It kind of takes away the fun of it. The fun of it is your ass — it’s not saying your ass is not hot, but your ass is the hottest of the group. Therefore, I’ve slapped it.
Eleanor Gordon-Smith: Did anybody hit you, or yell at you, or tell you not to do that?
Zac: No. No, no, no. I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m complimenting a girl’s ass in public.
Eleanor Gordon-Smith: You think that smacking a girl’s ass in public isn’t doing anything wrong?
And, after Professor Gordon-Smith produced a series of statistics on how women feel about catcalling, they finally reached the meaty, emotional center of the issue.
Eleanor Gordon-Smith: Can I tell you I found this stuff really depressing? Zac: Depressing? Eleanor Gordon-Smith: Yeah. Zac: Why? Eleanor Gordon-Smith: Because I feel like I’ve been walking around for days now believing that people want to be nice, and believing that it comes from a good place, and believing that guys are just trying to have fun and compliment people. But it’s real, real hard for me to keep believing that when I tell people how angry it makes us, I tell people how sad it makes us, I tell people about sexual violence statistics, and the reaction isn’t “that matters to me, and I’m going to stop.” The reaction is, “That doesn’t matter to me.” And it makes me feel like I’m walking around begging people to take people like me seriously, and they’re choosing their fun over how I feel. It makes me feel so small. Zac: I know. That’s fucked. That’s fucked. Well, that’s kind of just the selfishness of the world. People know how fucked up — how bad of things have happened to people. But it’s still not going to hinder the way that they are or anything like that. That’s just like human selfishness. Eleanor Gordon-Smith: But I don’t want to talk about humans and selfishness. I want to talk about you. Zac: OK. [LAUGHING] Eleanor Gordon-Smith: You going to stop? ‘Cause I’m not playing. Zac: Yes. I’m not going to slap any more asses. Compliments when I feel they are appropriate, and they’re not too suggestive in any way, they’re very lighthearted, I think I’m still going to do. Eleanor Gordon-Smith: Can you shake my hand and promise me you won’t slap any more asses? Zac: Yes, I can shake your hand. I can shake your hand. I am not going to slap any more asses.
After he left, I sat on the curb surrounded by fossilized bits of chewing gum and watched the traffic go by. This was the most success I had with any of the guys I talked to. It took 120 minutes of conversation with one man to get him to commit to not literally assaulting women.
At this point, I feel the need, as Professor Gordon-Smith did, to point out that Eleanor actually likes Zac. She thinks he’s funny and charming. Nice even. And she believes that he doesn’t want to harm women.
He’s just doing it anyway.
I could get into the way that all humans rationalize their own behavior, how societal constructed roles have conditioned men and women to behave, or how people who put their own sense of fun over the well-being of others are total assholes. But in an effort to take a higher road, I’m going to try to explain it in a way that respects Zac’s ethics.
I know you think of yourself as a good guy. I believe you even are a good guy. But I don’t know that you’re a good guy when you run up to me on the street and slap my ass. I don’t know that because I know literally nothing about you. If you truly want to put yourself in my position, or the position of any woman you might have “complimented” over the years, you need to tell me why I should feel good about you slapping my ass, and none of the answers can have anything to do with who you are. Should I feel good because you picked my ass as the best? Because I don’t know that. Maybe you picked me because I seem like the least likely to fight back. Or because I actually have the worst ass and you were trying to insult me. Should I feel OK with you shouting something at me because you’re a good guy? Because I don’t know you. I don’t know that you’re a good guy. You might want me to have a good night, but you also might be using my rejection of your compliment to harass me. I have no way of knowing. Do you want me to feel special because you “picked” me? Because I have no idea how many woman you’ve “picked.”
If you want to continue shouting at strangers on the street and physically assaulting them, then you need to figure out a way to actively communicate to them that you are a moral person whose ethics dictate that you pay us compliments, and assure us that we are completely safe despite the fact that a strange man just ran after us and shouted at us.
And if you can’t do that, then you need to knock it the fuck off.