So, I’m sexist. Like, Level One sexist according to this blog post by John Scalzi. Probably Level One racist too.
I’ll explain — Scalzi very thoughtfully lays out better than I’ve ever been able to, usually applying a clumsy moniker of “privilege” to too broad a range of issues. He posits four levels of discrimination, the first of which probably applies to the majority of us:
Level One: Ambient – This is the discrimination that is given to you, by society in general, by the particular groups you participate with in our general society, and by immediate influences (i.e., family, friends, teachers and authority figures). Your own ambient mix of discriminatory things will vary due to all of the above, as you drill down from the general to the specifics of your own life. But that doesn’t mean you avoid discrimination (or its effects); it merely dials in what particular discriminatory things you are more strongly influenced by. Everyone is influenced by the ambient discrimination, which is why, in fact, everyone is sexist, racist, classist, etc — we all got given this stuff early, often and before we could think about it critically. This is the baggage we deal with.
Despite growing up with strong, respectful parents who would never tolerate me being a racist, sexist dick, I almost certainly suffer from the baggage Scalzi defines here. It’d be hard not to. While I learned to hate racism, homophobia, etc. long ago, it took too long for my brain to really register the ambient misogyny in society. And, I guess, in me, for that matter. Once I started to see and hear it, I saw and heard it everywhere. Like bad kerning…except, you know, a deadly societal issue.
I’ve been aware of the active backlash against the “not all men” cop-out for a while, which was properly skewered by Slate in the wake of last weekend’s shooting at UC Santa Barbara, perpetrated by Elliot Rodger, a mentally unstable twat who, according to his own manifesto, killed random people because of the women who drove him to it by not digging him. Fuck that guy. If you want the 40-second version of his misogynist whinging, might I suggest this video, But I’m A Nice Guy by Scott Benson, found via Joey DeVilla:
Anyway, the push-back against the predictable post-Rodger “not all men” cry has come, in part, in the form of the #YesAllWomen Twitter hashtag. I started reading those tweets this weekend, and pretty quickly felt revolted by my own gender. Those tweets from women I didn’t know rattled in my head when I tried to go to sleep. Especially Margaret Atwood’s words: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”
Today, though, I got a close-up look.
I was on the subway heading south to a meeting on King Street, standing in the far doorway, listening to a podcast. Three people — two young women, I’m guessing mid-20s and early-30s, and a young man — got on at Summerhill. They all stood close together, and kinda weirdly close to me…closer than you’d expect people to stand to you on the TTC. I didn’t think much of it, but then I noticed the guy. He was staring at the younger woman. I mean staring. Open-mouthed, non-blinking, less-than-a-foot-away staring. He wasn’t speaking. The women were but I couldn’t hear what they were saying — I was listening to an episode of This American Life on my headphones. Finally, just before Rosedale station, I saw him say something and try to move even closer to the younger woman but the older woman blocked him. It was clear now he wasn’t with them; he was following them. Specifically, the smaller, younger woman. I pulled out my headphones and heard the older woman say, “Okay, she doesn’t know you, and you don’t know her, so just leave her alone.” I realized at this point that the early-30s woman didn’t know the mid-20s woman either…she’d just been trying to help her fend off a creepy guy. I realized this, and all I could think of was Elliot Rodger. This was obsession, fixation, objectification. He was coming after her like a dog chasing a ball.
I stepped forward and tapped the younger girl on the shoulder, letting her know she could move behind me into the doorway. I stepped in front of the other woman as well, between her and this guy, and put my headphones back in. He didn’t seem to notice me…he was completely fixated on her. He just tried to step around me to get to the woman. Now he was moving more aggressively, actually trying to duck around me and another lady who was now helping to shield the young woman. I got in his way a few times, and he figured out now that I wasn’t going to let him get to her. I didn’t try to get physical with him; he wasn’t a big guy but he was definitely unstable. He tried to provoke me though: he stuck his middle finger as close to the right side of my face as he could without touching me. I just stared out the subway doors, smirking. This was the best he had when there’s someone my size in his way. But I noticed something else: the smell. It’s a smell you get to know in any city. He didn’t look homeless, but he definitely smelled homeless. And it confirmed that I didn’t want to touch this guy.
Next he opened his hand and started waving it in my face, still on my right side, like a kid (or Sean Avery) playing the “I’m not touching you! I’m not touching you!” game. It was annoying, and stunk, but I was fine with it; if he was paying attention to me he was leaving the young woman alone. But then he got more aggressive, and moved right in front of me, right in my face. I tensed at this point; I actually thought he might take a swing, or even have something on him, like a weapon. I haven’t felt adrenaline like that in a while; I forget how tingly your legs get. He didn’t attack me though. He did open his mouth, stick out his tongue, and snarl at me with rotted, sharpened teeth like some kind of homeless Maori warrior, which just grossed me out and actually made me laugh even more. It was all so ridiculous. There was a crazy dude trying to scare me on the subway, while Ira Glass interviewed Molly Ringwald in my ear.
Look, I know a lot of people would say his behaviour has to be chalked up to the fact that he was crazy, or on drugs, or both, or something else entirely. And that’s part of it. But here’s the thing: he wasn’t obsessed with me. Or any other dudes. Or any of the hundreds of other adults on the subway. Or any of the kids, who were all smaller and weaker than him. It was just the pretty girl. Something in his misfiring brain told him this was okay, that this girl’s prettiness gave him permission to be aggressive toward her. To try whatever the fuck he wanted to do to her if there weren’t people stopping him. And the worst part is that there are men out there who aren’t crazy or on drugs, who also see her prettiness as permission to try whatever the fuck they want to do to her. And they might think to catch her where there aren’t people to help.
The train pulled into Bloor and, in the chaos of that station, I didn’t notice that she got off the train. I noticed just after the crazy guy did, and he ran off the train after her. The last I saw she was running down the packed southbound platform toward the security station; I don’t know what happened after that. A few of us tried to signal to people on the platform but the train was already moving. I wish I’d followed them. Fuck my meeting. I should have followed them. I’ve been checking Twitter and the news all day to see if anything happened at the station.
I hope she’s okay. I hope she never sees him again. I hope she never sees anyone like him again.
But she probably will.
Cover photo by Allan Ferguson, used under Creative Commons license