A political friend wrote on Facebook on New Year’s Eve, “If I’ve been too tough on a political opponent in the last ten years, I apologize to them now. If I haven’t been tough enough on them, I apologize to everyone else.”
I have not been tough enough in my own little world, and the decade just past taught me that tolerance of others’ intolerance does not create a larger space for tolerance, and silence in the face of ugliness does not illuminate a brighter path toward kindness for the ill-mannered who choose to walk the road of insults and abuse. I do not speak out enough, and this is an important failure on my part.
My latest example came just this week. I do not know what I would like to have done instead or how I would prefer to feel about the incident right now other than how I feel, which is that I am a mouse and not a human being with a spine and a voice. (Nothing against mice, of course.)
Every woman in this country and in this era walks through a different day than the average day that a fifty-one-year-old white man like I am gets to enjoy. We live in an era and a country that treats my white, straight, male aspects (none of which I chose on my way out onto the world’s stage) as if they are positive attributes that speak to the high quality of my character, when they are each merely a genetic accident. The chief privilege in what we refer to as “white privilege” is the right to be unnoticed, to be invisible until a time arrives to be seen and heard at the moment of my choosing. Not one woman, person of color, or individual who is unique in ways that were not chosen by them at birth can enjoy that privilege of invisibility, not continuously at least, not permanently at all. Not in this era or in this nation.
When the symptoms of my disability became severe enough for me to adopt the use of a cane, I watched the tiniest piece of my permanent invisibility disappear. I am visible now, like it or not, and I often do not. I have a genetic anomaly that I was born with but did not choose, like my skin color, which is called spinal muscular atrophy, and its symptoms appeared late in life, when I was nearing forty. How often does it take a personal challenge to engender a larger compassion? For me, it was one hundred percent of the time! The purchase of a cane did not switch me like Scrooge from a generally callous individual to a warmhearted empathetic lover of my fellows; I have offered empathy all my life, but mostly as an intellectual exercise, I think. (I voted for certain individuals and donated money when I could to certain causes, but these hands have not yet filled a hungry person’s bowl.) Now my empathy has more muscle inside it, I hope, but I am not certain of this.
This week, I froze in the face of an individual’s pushy rudeness. I remain surprised at how often I can be surprised by other people when they choose to be offensive, but that shock renders me silent and I refuse to “create a scene.” Most of the scenes I could create might lead to the nickname of “Snowflake” or “politically correct bully,” after all, and I do not wish to break my invisibility. Not at the expense of defending another’s right to be left unmolested when they have already been verbally injured or insulted, it appears.
The rude person did not perceive himself as anything other than helpful at the moment when he was boorish and disgusting. He was a solution in search of a problem.
He and I both heard a woman of my acquaintance speak in a public setting this week about a body image issue with which she was in a struggle at that moment. In her mind, she knows that the issue is not her actual physical body but her body image, which is a healthy perspective, but in her emotions she still has the feeling that her physical body is all wrong and will never be “right.” She remains prone to self-harm.
Soon after, a third party who had heard her speak of this struggle approached her. I do not know if he had ever spoken one-on-one with her before. I was the only witness to the monologue that followed:
“You think you’re overweight? You can do something about that. You ought to come to the gym. You have a gym membership? You have a great body already, you can get it into even better shape.” More followed on the same theme.
Her spine stiffened and she curled her shoulders forward. Her blank facial expression froze into a hard blankness. She spoke partial sentences that did not commit her to an agreement or disagreement: “Okay. It’s okay. I’ll be okay.” It was sufficient to deter him, or perhaps my presence (I came closer) deterred him. “Think about it,” he called to her on his way out.
Like me, he is a single, straight, white man in his fifties, but one who is unmolested by a conscience and unaware of his privileges. The monologue was his offer of an invitation to a woman on a date to the gym, I suppose, and perhaps he has attracted women to his side in his past with uninvited compliments about a woman’s body. He has never given me gym advice, but, of course, I am male and thus invisible.
He has never recommended a gym to me, and my warped legs could use the exercise. I wish I had kicked him, which might have served as a start.
Five minutes later, she did not betray even a hint of an inner disturbance about that moment, perhaps because she receives this type of unpleasant attention—like every woman does—with some frequency.
It was the first time in a long time for me to witness this sort of moment, though, and I know in my mind and feel in my heart that I failed all three of us: her, me, and the pushy guy. He needs to learn that that was an incident of verbal molestation, and that he can be a better man someday if and when he understands this. I denied him the opportunity to be better in my unintentionally complicit silence. Further, my silence preserved for her an image of men who fail to protect her, fail to assist women, and always protect the other guy.
It is possible that she has heard me speak in the past about the importance of empathy and kindness, just as any number of women and people of color and people with different and unique challenges have heard me speak of the importance of help and kindness and how I aspire to give these things when I have the help and kindness to offer. Perhaps I rarely have them to offer. She is not a girlfriend, but when I was faced with a similar moment beside a girlfriend, I failed then, too. At least in that moment, I held my girlfriend’s hand, and whether or not it made a difference and felt like support for her, she told me that she felt that I had her back, but this may be credit from her that I did not deserve.
This week, I was invisible as well as silent.
The friend from this week now knows—as many women and people of color and different challenges who know me have long known and that I appear to have just this week newly re-observed in me—that these are merely virtue-signalling words when they leave my mouth. Or they have been.
When I had a chance to make a small difference, I failed. I do not yet have the language in my mind that I want to employ the next time I witness a moment like this, be it sexual harassment or racial harassment, but I know that I must learn it. I will ask the people in my life whom I see in such moments what they need from the privileged invisible among us like me in such moments. The bullies have always been among us, they like to break their invisibility, and too often they do not think that they are bullies. They are growing in number.
The days in which my type, the non-self-aware, the politely silent, must come to a loud conclusion, and not soon enough.
“If I haven’t been tough enough, I apologize to everyone else,” as my friend wrote on New Year’s Eve.
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The image at the top is from an ongoing Instagram project created by Sophie Sandberg (@catcallsofnyc) A website explains, “Our goal is to give people a place to share their stories of harassment, use it to raise public awareness and ultimately denormalize catcalling.”
What I witnessed was a form of catcalling, but it was served up as “advice.” It was harassment, I knew it in the moment while it was in front of me, and I did nothing. That is complicity.
Sophie Sandberg writes that she writes a catcall or harassment in chalk on the spot where she was harassed. It was started as a student project at NYU. “She would then photograph and post them to Instagram. She intended to give people a place to share their story of harassment and use it to spread public awareness about street harassment. Now, the movement has grown to over 50 accounts worldwide, highlighting how widespread and global this issue is,” the Chalk Back website explains.
The are many resources available in the fight against sexual violence; April 2, 2020, is this year’s awareness “Day of Action.” A good place to start is the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
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