December 26, 2017

Uninterrupted: On misogyny, street harassment, and politely saying good morning exclusively to pretty women



On misogyny, street harassment, and politely saying "good morning" exclusively to pretty women.


Remember Hollaback? In case you need a refresher, it was the 2014 viral catcall video where a woman walks NYC for 10 hours and is cat called 108 times.

On the spectrum of responses to this video are men who felt that the implications of the video attempted to encroach on their rights. The video implied, they claimed, that men should only speak when spoken to and should never converse with a strange woman. Further, they said, women are complaining about comments such as, "Good morning" and, "God bless you."

How can those things be misconstrued to be harassment?

Happily other men responded quite logically, pointing out that there is a difference between talking to a strange woman, and talking at a strange woman. People who advocate to end street harassment are not suggesting that men never speak to women they do not know, or only speak when spoken to. Instead it is about an awareness about how and when women are being approached and whether it is contextually appropriate, and the consensus is that attempting to "engage" women as they are walking the street is not appropriate as it is an encroachment on personal time and space and forces women to either find ways to avoid or otherwise be subjected to a steady stream of unwanted conversation and commentary. Further, these men also reminded their less egalitarian cohorts that people generally agree that unsolicited calls from telemarketers are annoying, no matter how polite they are, and consider persistent calls from said telemarketers a form of harassment. So what does it matter, really, that the catcaller is "polite" in his verbiage as he talks at a strange woman passing by. It is still unsolicited, invasive commentary. It is still harassment.

Further illustrating this point is the important distinction Kate Manne, assistant professor at the Sage School of Philosophy at Cornell University, makes in her book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny. It is important to note, she highlights, that people often think of misogyny as deeply rooted hatred from men toward women and/or a failure to view them as human beings. Rather, misogyny is the enforcer of the patriarchal status quo. It isn't coming from a place of hate necessarily or motivated by dehumanizing or a failure to recognize women as human. Misogynistic behavior seeks to maintain the status quo of the patriarchy by rewarding women who act within their prescribed role and punishing women who do not. Catcalling fits this definition perfectly in all it's stages. 1. Feeling entitled to women's attention 2. Expecting that women respond a certain way to one's addresses 3. Feeling justified in punishing women who do not respond as expected 4. Feeling offended by women who attempt to address the issue of street harassment altogether, identifying these women themselves and the conflict they cause as the problem often completely ignoring the problem of street harassment itself in the process.

Often the men who participate in street harassment don't believe they are doing anything wrong, honestly feel that women who pointedly avoid them as they attempt to get their attention with smiles and waves are being flagrantly impolite, and feel personally and unnecessarily attacked by women who take issue with street harassment and advocate for change, feeling that it is an attempt to stifle and limit them. In a sense, as Manne explains, it is. It is an attempt to stifle and limit, but not unjustly, though it may appear unjust to someone who is used to experiencing a certain amount of privilege. As it stands, men are accustomed to women behaving a certain way and benefiting from those behaviors, including their nice-and-politeness even in moments when they are not being done right by. A change in this behavior threatens not only the status quo, but more importantly what it facilitates, which is the deeper sense of morality, rightness, and goodness that a man can feel when he walks down the street, interrupts a woman's day, imposes his company on her and, despite her discomfort, she smiles. Her smile affirms that his behavior is correct and gives him the attention and validation he desires and has been conditioned to rely upon. When she fails to smile, suddenly his views are challenged. Suddenly the rightness of his behavior is called into question. This threatens his world view, as the woman has failed to validate not only his behavior and privilege, but his deeper sense of moral rightness and ultimately, self worth. When the woman who is harassed on the street fails to comply, she fails to validate him.

Yeah, that's heavy. That explains a lot about the way that men respond to in-the-moment rejection of catcalls and other forms of street harassment, as well as the very strong and often illogical reactions they have toward the growing call to action to end it.

And yet, these explanations are not an excuse but merely a way to gain a deeper understanding of what misogyny is, how it influences issues like street harassment, and why even forms of harassment that seem to originate in "good will" really don't have the good of the recipient in mind. They are more about an attempt by man - albeit a subconscious attempt - to maintain his position of superiority. Most importantly, despite the protestations of many men, women overwhelmingly do not experience these encounters as good will.

So, yes. "Good morning," still falls under the umbrella of street harassment. To deny this is to dismiss the female perspective of the phenomenon whereby women are subjected to the exact same behaviors that constitute catcalling behind a thin veil of pleasantries including, but not limited to such phrases as: Good morning, good evening, good afternoon, how you doing, god bless you, have a good day. The difficultly some seem to have with these phrases as street harassment is that they lack the obvious sexual undertones of less veiled phrases such as: beautiful, can I talk to you, ayo ma, etc., and other phrases that directly allude to appearance, interest, attraction and even call out the specific body parts of said interest. I argue, however, that not only is the subtle difference in language not perceived differently by women, it is ultimately not intended differently by men. Looking at the situation from the female perspective clarifies the strength of this argument. And so it begins...

First, there are certain societal expectations at work here that are being used to put women in a position where their response is forced. It is understood that it is impolite not to speak when spoken to, when asked a question, or especially when someone says something kind. When someone "kindly" calls out "good morning" or "god bless you" to a woman on the street, though they may feign altruism as a defense, this argument is automatically debunked by the simple fact that they expect the woman in question to respond in a certain way. Their words command a response from the woman they have chosen to engage, and "politeness" is a built in defense that these men use to continue their behavior and place burden and blame on women if they do not comply to these expectations. That is to say that these same altruistic men that are so full of kindness that they just couldn't stop themselves from wishing a stranger good morning or showering them with blessings from god also feel entitled to punish that stranger with consequences if they don't respond to their words in the way that they want or expect.

Does altruism usually have consequences attached?

Second, there is an implicit understanding that passes between the man who says good morning and - actually, especially - the man who says god bless you and the woman that he says it to, the understanding being: that isn't really what he is saying. These seemingly polite phrases are merely a mask for what he is really saying to make his choice to engage this woman socially acceptable and to mandate her participation.

Evidence:

1. Unless it is on church property on a Sunday morning, it is rare that you will see men who do not know each other pass each other on the street arbitrarily saying "good morning" and "god bless you" to one another.

Mind the fact that when I say pass on the street, passing is not to be confused with taking neighborly strolls in one's suburb, population of twelve, nor am I referring to entering/exiting the local meat market or organic store where one may be likely to encounter familiars. Of course it is well established, customary and typically preferred unless otherwise stated for some specific reason to exchange greetings with the people we know, even if we only know them as neighbors. This is not what is being discussed (so if that was your argument, drop it). I am talking about the fleeting interactions particularly prevalent in big and busy cities such as my dear old NYC where humans pass each other on the street faster than a six year old can pedal her tricycle; people they have never seen before and will likely never see again even if they live within a five block radius of one another. Now that that's cleared up...

You do not see men arbitrarily doing this to one another on the street. You also do not see women arbitrarily doing this to one another as we pass each other on the street.  It is hard to argue that this is a somehow customary or polite interaction between people when it only seems to happen between the opposite sexes, and women overwhelmingly are on the receiving end of these remarks coming from men. Yes, people do greet each other politely when they don't know each other in close quarters like waiting on line in a grocery store, or waiting for their coffee order at the deli, or when awkwardly squeezing into a crowded train. Note that in all of these situations the strangers decide that they'll be too close for too long to ignore each other without downright rude, so they cave and break the ice. But in fleeting moments of passing each other on the street, especially in an age where most people are wearing headphones or clocking screen time in transit, humans overwhelming do not spout greetings at strangers as they pass them by, polite or no. This phenomenon is almost exclusively initiated by heterosexual men, toward women.

2. Unless it is literally your job to open doors are greet people as they come and go, most people do not customarily greet every single solitary person they encounter in day to day life. So even if we allow that some people are just more traditional than others, or well-mannered, or old fashioned, or gracious, or polite, or friendly, or community oriented, or personable, we still cannot escape the fact that these individuals do not greet every passersby on an indiscriminate basis. In other words, they choose who they say "good morning" and "god bless you" to quite carefully. The question becomes, then, on what basis are they making this choice? But we know the answer to this question already, don't we, so let's cut the crap. The recipients of these oh so thoughtful remarks are chosen based on their gender and their perceived attractiveness to the speaker. So really, "good morning" has nothing to do with the sunshine and "god bless you" has nothing to do with the lord. It is the speaker's way of "politely" letting the recipient know that their attractiveness is being noticed, and/or an excuse to converse with the attractive recipient.

3. If the recipient does not respond as expected - or in a way that is agreeable to the speaker - the message to the recipient changes and actually becomes a more direct, accurate reflection of what the speaker is trying to communicate. When the speaker proceeds to do any of the following: raise their voice, come closer, use more aggressive words, berate the recipient for either not responding or for not responding favorably - the intention is plain. I'm talking to you, so talk to me! I said something nice, so smile at me! Do you not hear me talking to you? I'm giving you attention, give me attention back - now!

4. Often the speaker must go out of their way to facilitate the delivery of these kind words due to rather obvious attempts by the recipient to preempt any potential conversation and avoid engaging altogether. Such tactics include: donning headphones, looking down at ones phone, pretending to be on the phone, actually calling someone and asking them to stay on because they are walking outside, avoiding eye contact, crossing to another side of the street, deliberately walking faster, crossing arms over one's chest, and so on and so forth.

It is hard to argue the casual, good intention of words that one has to go out of their way to literally force upon a recipient who is actively employing diversionary and defensive tactics to avoid being spoken to.

It is hard to argue the benevolent spirit of the person who ignores the affect they have on the recipients of their words.

There is something incredibly predatory about deciding that an interaction with someone you don't know is going to go your way whether they want it to or not.

...

AN ANECDOTE WITH RESPECT TO TRYING TO HAVE A GOOD MORNING

From personal experience, at 8:38 on the morning of 11/29/17 I walked quickly as I was halfway between my apartment and the train station on my way to work. I did not have headphones on because I rarely listen to music straight away in the morning as I find it too overwhelming for my senses. I wore dark sunglasses as I am very sensitive to light as well, and had my phone in my hand to check the time as I was aiming to catch the 8:41 train. As I crossed the street there were at least three cars to my left waiting for the light on the narrow, one way street to change.

As I crossed, a male voice from inside one of the three cars shouted, "Good morning."

I did not know who it was. I did not want to know who it was.

First, the voice startled me. That is probably the most overlooked of the realities of being a woman and being catcalled. It is a sharp, piercing invasion that comes out of nowhere which abruptly forces you to stop whatever you are doing for a moment - walking to work, thinking about the outage that awaits at work, texting your mother back - and acknowledge the fact that you are being noticed. So yes, the voice startled me. It was deep, loud, and the manner in which it said "good morning" was all at once seductive, accusatory, and assertive, not exactly going up in inflection at the end like a question, but the tone definitely communicated that a response was expected. He said "good morning" the way you might sarcastically say "you're welcome" to a small child who failed to say "thank you."

Second, I was automatically uncomfortable. I was grateful for the fact that it was winter and I didn't have to try to walk like a stick figure to avoid the added discomfort of knowing that certain parts of my body were being gratuitously appraised. I tried to let the discomfort roll off my back and put the fact that a stranger was watching me out of my mind.

Third, I assessed my safety in the situation. The speaker was inside the car. Of this I was sure. My native New Yorker peripheral vision is very developed. I was walking against traffic down a one way street, so when the light changed and the car was forced to turn, it could not follow me. Not that a car has never went the wrong way down a one way street, U-turned, or driven in reverse in order to follow me - indeed, all three of these things have happened - but it was very unlikely today because it was rush hour and there was slow moving, stop and go traffic happening on the street.

Within the two to three seconds it took me to absorb the comment, deal with the insecure feeling of being watched, force myself to walk normally, and gauge whether I was in any potential danger, I concluded that, no, I would not be responding to this comment.

Reasons: I didn't know the speaker. I had no interest in learning the identity of the speaker as this would require stopping and approaching a strange vehicle which I had been specifically advised against when I was four. Being spoken to by a stranger felt like an intrusion. I resented being put in a position where my time, attention and speech was being essentially demanded by a stranger. I resented this because the speaker was trying to force me to say hello, remind me to say hello, as though it were something I had forgotten to do. But I had not forgotten anything. The speaker seemed to think that if I was going to be outside, that I was obligated to make eye contact, smile, and greet anyone outside who could see me and that, if I failed to meet this obligation, it was within his right to remind me of it.

I disagreed.

Thus, I refused.

I kept walking as though I hadn't heard the voice. I didn't so much as blink differently, let alone turn my head.

The result?

"Good morning!" the speaker shouted. Remember when I said he'd initially said it sarcastically as though reminding a child of their manners? Some odd cocktail of two parts sarcasm, one part sweetness? Well now the sweetness was gone, the sarcasm was gone. It was just anger, frustration and entitlement. Though the words were the same, given the tone being used his meaning was clear. I'm talking to you! is what he was really shouting. And when, nevertheless, I persisted in ignoring him, he shouted it again. And again. And again. Each time louder. Each time more aggressively. Each time less convincing in that anyone who heard him shouting would believe he would rather see me hit by a car than enjoying a good morning.

I kept walking, selectively deaf. I did not turn so I don't know the exact reason for the three loud, drawn out horn honks that followed. It could be that this was a last ditch effort to get my attention. It could be that it was a frustrated lash out, like giving someone the finger, but that the horn was used because, as I was several steps away now and my back was turned, I wouldn't have seen the finger. It could be that he was so busy shouting out the window at a moving target that he didn't realize the light changed and it was the person behind him who was honking.

I have no idea. I didn't turn around to see.

But you go ahead and tell me that he was aggressively screaming out of his car window because he really, really, really hoped that I enjoyed a good morning. Yeah, I didn't think so. What was actually happening was - he decided that he wanted to talk to a random woman he saw walking by while sitting at a light (note: at a moment that was convenient for him while idling, regardless of whether it was convenient for the woman who was obviously occupied otherwise), and was outraged when she had the audacity to choose not to talk back to him, so he lashed out to put her in her place because who the hell did she think she was that she could decline to speak to him? And so on, and so forth.

...

This is all to illustrate the truth that while someone might be saying words that are technically polite, it is not about the words themselves, but about the circumstances and then intent in which those words are being said. Things like body language matter too in these instances. Slowly running one's eyes up and down another's body, or doing worse and grinning with one's eyes locked directly on a woman's breasts, does not make "good morning" very possible, let alone polite.

To summarize...

You are not just being polite if:

- You choose who to be "polite" to based on their gender, perceived sexual orientation, and your attraction to them

- You expect a specific response from the person you are being "polite" to

- You act out against the person you were being "polite" to as a consequence of them not responding in the way that you deem appropriate, or in an attempt to force the response you believe you are owed

You are not being polite. You are not acting on some impartial spirit of altruism.

You are pursuing your own agenda and using a veil of social niceties to mask that agenda. You are also using social expectations to pressure women into interacting with you out of a sense of obligation, ignoring their autonomy in the process.

The act of walking down the street, or the act of merely existing in a public space, does not require obligatory interaction with strangers that one might encounter.

By pressuring women into seemingly obligatory conversation, you are treating women as though we have walked into your living room and neglected to acknowledge your presence. And you do have the right to expect people to acknowledge you when entering your private space.

The public world, however, is not your private space. Sorry, James Brown. This is not a man's world. It is as much ours as yours, we have a right to exist in it without your permission, your nod of approval, your "hi, how you doing?", and we are no more required to make eye contact, smile, nod, or speak to people that we do not know as we live our lives as men are, because men are not owners and guardians of the streets that women merely ask for right of passage through.

By having and acting on this expectation you are behaving as though you are part of some special task force charged with monitoring and preserving the exchange of societal niceties. Of course, as an enforcer you do not feel required to return the same respect you feel you should command as you publicly berate women who you feel have somehow been rude to you by literally doing nothing.

In fact, no such task force exists, and you are acting of your own accord, toward no quantifiable benefit for anyone but yourself. 

You are arbitrarily enforcing your idea of "manners" with women of your choosing because you feel entitled to do so. You feel entitled because you have been conditioned to internalize these illogical and gender partial beliefs as, not only normal, but correct. You are enforcing the patriarchy, and using barely masked misogyny to do it.

And for this reason, you too are a part of street harassment.

Getting on the right side of street harassment does not mean sugar coating your words and hiding your intentions to appear more socially acceptable to those around you so that you don't have to challenge your existing norms, behaviors and beliefs. It does not mean acting on women and then telling them what to think and how to feel about your actions, as though we have no perceptions and experiences of our own and can be corrected, convinced or otherwise mansplained into to experiencing, thinking, and feeling things in the way that you would like us to.

It means taking a serious look at your behavior and identifying the true reasons for why you do what you do. Ask yourself if you seriously mean to wish someone a good day, or if what you mean to do is let them know that you find them attractive. Ask yourself if you honestly believe that telling a woman that she looks nice, or that you like her hair, or her shoes, is doing something positive for her in any way, or are you just hoping that if you make her aware of your sexual interest that flattery might somehow win you favor. Ask yourself why you are going so far out of your way to make eye contact with the woman who is trying so hard to avoid eye contact with you. Ask yourself why you need her to look at you so badly. What do you want her to see? What do you want her to feel? What do you want her to know? Ask yourself who it is really about when you decide not to talk to, but to talk at women on the street, and when you inevitably come to the conclusion that it is about you, ask yourself why you need it? Does it make you feel strong? Does it make you feel powerful? Does it make you feel important?

Ask yourself these questions and adjust your behavior accordingly. 
Do not be mistaken as to think that because you are not actively participating in physical assault, or using curse words or other derogatory language that you are not still a part of the problem, because by participating in the arbitrary harassment of women you are solidifying the ideology of male entitlement and perpetuating the idea that women are not autonomous and owe you some sort of trade off for existing in public space.

You are not owed. You are not entitled.

It is not up to you to decide to "bless" the women you deem visually worthy of said blessings, and let's not even get into the implications of religious differences, religious freedom, and the fact that some women would be inclined to ask you to which "god" you were referring while others would be compelled to point out that they're agnostic. This is neither here nor there because, as previously discussed, the blessings you are delivering are not in fact "god's" but yours. It is the blessing of your approval you are showering upon the woman you pass - one she neither solicited nor requires.

If you genuinely want a random woman you see on the street to have a good morning as she passes you by, treat her like a human being and let her go about her day uninterrupted.




2 comments:

  1. Excellent piece. I can't imagine as a large black man, already perceived as a threat by most and rarely fucked with, walking through this world wary of every woman I encountered on the street. It's a sad commentary and pretty accurate reflection of the world we live into day. A world on fire. A debased culture consumed with grotesque spectacles of fear, greed , lust and envy. Governed with patriarchy & mysogeny. Hyperviolent, hyperaggressive, hypersexual, overstressed, undernourished & understimulated. A world where even politeness has been weaponized to further propagate violence, domination, oppression & exploitation of the Divine Feminine in all her forms. The violence you're subjected to on a day to day basis, we see replicated in how this barbaric culture has treated our Great Mother Earth. With utter disregard and disrespect. Regarding the issue of street harassment, it boils down to like you said, the difference between talking at and talking to women, and context, tone and intent.

    I feel though, and this is not a justification, just a feeling, that what you experience is a byproduct of the myriad of violence visited on men via patriarchy; the violence of invisibility. Of not being seen as anything but a threat. Of being programmed from birth to compete, dominate, exploit, and win at all costs. That threatening and engaging in violence is acceptable when "justified". That speaking to people that we care about, men and women, in violent and aggressive and demeaning ways are seen as normal. That normal human experiences, like feeling, emoting, showing any kind of "weakness" makes one subject to ridicule, verbal and physical violence and being regarded as a "pussy". I get the sense that this violence increases in correlation to ones place on the socio-economic/class/race spectrum. There's alot of unexpressed, unprocessed rage, pain, suffering and trauma and gods know whatever other muckety muck associated with those life long experiences of violence that is being expressed in maladaptive ways every day as a result. Lasting change will likely require a whole lot of rethinking and dismantling of deeply rooted systemic and cultural ways of being. Revolutionary change at the root level of people's beings, deep inner work, that most people don't have the time or volition to engage in for any significant length of time. Short of that, I sadly expect more of the same bullshit.

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