by John Walters
What do we owe our fellow passengers on this ride called life? Do we owe them courtesy and respect? Sure, of course. Do we owe them an unspoken promise that we mean no harm? I certainly hope so. Do we owe them not only safety but whatever will make them feel safe, even if that requires behavior that is out of character for us? I don’t think so, first of all because there is no common standard for what will make one person feel safe as opposed to what will make another feel safe.
If you don’t know where this is coming from, I had an interesting afternoon on Twitter yesterday. It began with a pair of tweets from Mina Kimes, a popular young female TV personality who regularly appears on one or more of ESPN’s weekday afternoon programs. I’ve never met Ms. Kimes, but on TV she comes off as smart and personable. Here is what she tweeted:
One of my first thoughts when I read these tweets was that this would make for an ideal Curb Your Enthusiasm subplot. Larry is chastised by a woman he meets at a hotel for not pushing his floor first (turns out they’re on the same floor) and for waiting for her to exit the elevator. Of course, as soon as he starts adopting these measures, a series of encounters in elevators with women result, each one ending horribly for him as he is scolded for exiting first and not being a gentleman.
One imagines Susie ripping Larry a new one for his absence of manners. Of course Leon would laugh at this new world order and launch into a politically incorrect screed about the elevator pickup. The episode ends with Larry and a woman alone in a hotel elevator, Larry exiting first, and just then the elevator cables snap and she plunges to an untimely demise. And let’s face it, there have been far more contrived Curb endings than that.
Here is what I replied to Mina, against my better judgment (not because I don’t believe in what I’m typing, but because I foresaw the backlash that would ensue):
Here are points that to me appear obvious but let’s lay them down for the record: as a man you never behave in a manner that makes a woman feel unsafe. That’s pretty easy, right? Confined space or not, alone with her or not, you don’t act in such a manner that makes a female feel threatened.
I think we’re all on board with that.
But here is where I part company with Mina. Her advice here is that I am, as a male, an existential threat. It’s not the behavior I’m exhibiting in the elevator that makes her feel threatened; it’s my identity as a man, alone. I can modify my behavior. I cannot modify my identity.
Let’s change the particulars but maintain the principles. A woman lives in a neighborhood where 100% of the muggings are done by the same ethnic group. Never mind that 99.9999% of the people of that ethnic group who live in that neighborhood are not muggers. The woman does not feel safe if she is walking alone at night and someone from that ethnic group is walking behind her on the sidewalk. Can she send out a tweet asking folks of that ethnic group to walk on the other side of the street after sundown?
That’s racist, man! Why? Because I’m saying that I know that even though most of y’all aren’t muggers, I still feel unsafe when one of you is behind me on the street at night? I’m not calling you a mugger. I’m just asking you to respect my fears and cross the street. Identify yourself as someone I can trust by going out of your way to behave in a manner that makes me feel safer.
It’s the same principle. Yes, women have more to fear from men than vice-versa. But as Mina herself acknowledges, “99.9999% of (us) don’t have bad intentions.” So she’s asking all of us to alter our behavior for the actions of a minute few not because of how we act but because of what we are.
Sorry, I’m not down with that. And that doesn’t mean I don’t have empathy for women. If you think that, this must be your first day reading this blog or my tweets. Frankly, the suggestion is laughable, as I am in the midst of having cut out from a job for a month to return home to Arizona to take care of my mother who took a nasty spill (for the record, she’s going to be fine and emitted an “Oh, geez!” when I told her the latest cause for Twitter’s mass enmity toward me).
My obligation, as a fellow human being, is to treat you the way I would want you to treat me. Although someone corrected me on Twitter and said that, No, your obligation is to treat others the way they want to be treated (Did you hear that, Jesus? You got it wrong.) What a person who says that really means is, Treat me the way I want to be treated.
It’s possible, in fact even likely, that I can have empathy for women’s safety while also not wanting to live in a world where I have to announce I’m not Erin Andrews’ peephole peeper to every new female I meet. Does anyone feel that they should have to operate under a presumption of guilt until proven innocent with every chance encounter? Isn’t this the cause of so much agitation, and rightfully so, in minority communities?
But there’s a much simpler solution to all of this, one that will not ask the 99.9999 % (Mina’s figure, not mine; we both know the number is lower) of men without bad intentions to remind themselves to announce that they’re not Ted Bundy to every woman they meet. If Mina finds herself in the situation she described, why not just wait until the man presses his floor first? And if she is catching any creeper vibes and/or if he is hesitating to do so, step out of the elevator.
Now I know that Mina is a young, female, attractive and well-known sports television personality. And I know that I am none of those (and even worse, white). So on Twitter this argument never stands a chance because there’s very little chance the average stranger will separate the argument from the person making it. You know and like Mina; I’m the middle-aged white guy you’ve never heard of.
You can like Mina more than you like me. That makes perfect sense. What I’d ask you to do, what I always try to do on Twitter no matter who is speaking, is evaluate the argument. If I am behaving in any such way that makes you uncomfortable, let me know what I am doing and I will alter it. If what makes you uncomfortable is my gender alone, sorry.
As a New Yorker for 30 years, I’ve ridden countless elevators. In and out of hotels. When alone with a woman I don’t know, I stand as far away as possible. I don’t make small talk unless she initiates it. I mostly stare at the tops of my shoes. I imagine most men behave the same way. If some creeper wants to stalk you, his pushing the floor button first is not going to stop him. It may delay him, but it won’t stop him. Creepers creep.
One last thing: I notice whenever I take a contrarian stand on Twitter, particularly when it’s contra to anything a woman or any oppressed group says, no matter what the topic, is that I don’t just get “I disagree with you.” I get a lot of name-calling and I also receive a ton of “You cannot express that opinion!” although it’s more blunt. It’s thought-fascism.
I don’t care if you disagree with me. I welcome it, and I’m happy to discuss the issues. You’re not right because you’re not white and I’m not right because I am white (and male). But unfortunately (“mansplaining”) that’s too often what (“white privilege!”) it devolves into. And it’s this bizarre phenomenon of bullying people for being honest and disagreeing with your opinion that helped give rise to Trump. And worse, to Clay Travis.
Disagree with me all you want. Attack my points. Make a valid argument.
Final, final thing: Mina herself was never rude to me on Twitter. I chose to go this forum because Twitter and Awful Announcing love a yard fight and I’m not here to provide a show for them. I honestly took issue with what Mina wrote—not because I don’t believe all women have a right to be safe, but because I don’t believe any of us should be made to conform to what someone says makes them feel safe. There’s a big difference.