A Manoment of Manderstanding

I had the privilege of watching Athol Fugard’s The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek, a play in which a child who has grown up under an oppressive and racist regime in 1981 South Africa now has an opportunity to confront one of his former, naive-however-well-intentioned tenders (it is now 2003, with a new constitution in place). The boy, Jonathan (Yaegel T. Welch) recounts to the frightened, gun-toting woman Elmarie (Bianca Amato), what it meant for him to see his beloved role model, the elder Nukain (Leon Addison Brown) stand up for himself in private, painting his “story” upon “the big one” (a giant rock, beside all the other rocks on which he had been painting mere superficial flowers in order to beautify the land at his employer’s request), only to immediately revert to a frightened, servile old man when confronted by his “master.” There’s a moment at which it seems as if Jonathan and Elmarie will talk right past one another–she is blinded by fear of all things black, as angry and poor citizens have been murdering her fellow landowners, and he feels more entitled to the land than she–and then there’s a brilliant moment as Jonathan pauses and reconsiders. He stops himself and says something to the effect of: “We must try again. If we cannot understand one another, then what hope is there [for this new country]?” And so he takes the time to listen to her perspective, and to convince her of his–ultimately, they might not agree, but she at least sees him as a person, not an idea, not a construct. And that’s how the play ends, with a fade to black before the “big one” as he looks into the eyes that he has just repainted on it, with Elmarie right beside the rock, and says: “Now you see me. I am a man.”

That’s a breathtaking and important bit of dramatics, and I’m now going to apply it to something apparently pedantic, but bear with me, because there’s a point here. The site xojane recently ran an article entitled “I Have Been Sitting on Manspreaders for the Last Month and I Have Never Felt More Free,” and you know what? I agree with almost the entirety of it. As a native New Yorker, I have many times had to sit on someone to get them to move over and respect my right to an equal share of space; I’ve jockeyed elbows and knees with people who don’t seem to understand that they’re allotted only a single seat. I’ve had to push my way past those people who like to stand in front of the doors, not allowing anybody on or off the train, and when I can’t maneuver myself between pedestrian groups walking four to a stride, and they don’t listen to my repeated requests to “excuse me” (I’m a fast walker), I will triumphantly Red Rover myself through their interlocked arms. Fuck with me on the steps, people, because you haven’t yet learned that the correct lane is the one to the right, whether you’re going up or down, and I will Zax the shit out of you: we can stand there all day. I don’t care. My bony elbows are out and ready to joust.

The difference between my little rant here and Cassie J.’s is that hers is entirely about men. It’s about a trod-upon woman getting revenge against men, specifically those who somehow sprawl across three seats (by which I can only assume they’re sitting in the middle). Even though, as she acknowledges, most of those men comport themselves properly once she’s interjected herself into the space they’ve staked out as “theirs.” (Had she tried first asking them to move?) By her conclusion, she’s whispering “Excuse me” literally *as* she hurls herself down, and the message being sent is that men–yes, all men–are assholes, the only way to deal with them is to physically force them to be better. There are no instructions for dealing with the many women who take up space in various ways on the train, nor is there any nuance given to how crowded a train is. The point is that even if it’s a half-empty train at 12:11 AM, manspreading is The Worst Thing Ever, because Men, in general, are The Worst People Ever.

The bigger problem with one-sided articles like this is that when you attempt to discuss them in person or on Facebook with some women–and I’ll acknowledge the nuance that people like Cassie won’t: that there are plenty of women who are willing to listen–they shut down completely. One such woman felt it necessary to delete her entire Facebook conversation with me, presumably because she realized in retrospect how vindictive it made her appear. And that slant is everywhere: when I asked this woman to explain why she felt entitled to use a term that I found offensive (“manspreading”), she muttered something about “the patriarchy” and linked me to this New York Times article. The first line literally draws the lines: “The bane of many female subway riders”? Really? As if men couldn’t be offended by this? If Kelley Rae O’Donnell’s issue is with how it “just seems so inconsiderate in this really crowded city,” why are men the only target? The article itself even hints at this, pointing out an old public-awareness campaign in which this behavior was more appropriately called being a “space hog.” Wouldn’t that be a more inclusive, descriptive, and appropriate term?

The question, then, is one that this particular woman could not answer. She agreed that she’d be offended if men were to start throwing around the term “bitch bagging” (which is intentionally offensive), but also asserted that she didn’t care if “manspreading” was offensive to men: that was, she implied, the point. She refused to explain why she didn’t want to just use the gender-neutral term “space hog” instead, and this is about the point at which she deleted the conversation. In other words, she didn’t want to have a conversation (despite having been the one to join in someone else’s Facebook posts): she wanted to make a declarative statement. She didn’t want to listen. She didn’t want to understand. On the other hand, I really did. I asked questions because I wanted to know the answers; I was disappointed when they didn’t come, but that didn’t mean I’d stop trying to communicate. I’m sure I came across as patronizing or arrogant, but that’s the unfortunate side-effect of talking to someone who isn’t actually listening to the sincerity of what you’re saying.

Which leads me back to The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek‘s message. If we can’t understand one another in this society of ours, then our society is bound to collapse. We don’t have to agree with one another. We don’t have to even like one another. But there is no single person on this earth with whom I should not be able to have a conversation, one in which I can feel as if I’ve made my point and had my concerns heard, and where the other person can walk away feeling the same. To strive for anything less is to acknowledge that you don’t actually care about equality or justice or anything else; that you want to get back at the people who you feel have wronged you, not that you want them to listen to you. You don’t actually want that so-called “manspreader” to politely close his legs when prompted, and you ignore all the ones who already do so: you want to sit on that man. You want to teach him a lesson. And when you write about it, you want others to do the same, too, because it’s about teaching a lesson. And at the end of the day, is that the lesson you really want to teach?

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