This morning at the coffee shop by the university, a lovely co-ed at an adjoining table looked over and asked me about the book I was reading. I looked up over my reading glasses, pushed aside my caffè macchiato for a moment, and chatted with her about the book. The book itself was the kind of thing I am likely to have with me on a weekend morning--- something academic, something historical. In this case, an English Marxist look at radical groups during the English Revolution: Christopher Hill's The World Turned Upside Down. The girl was a History major, and she'd heard the title before and had always, she said, meant to read the book. A pleasant enough conversation on a Sunday morning. She asked me if I was faculty somewhere, then asked about what I'd taught in my past. We talked about her grad school plans and about what I liked about the book. She told me about her interests and I recommended a couple of other books. I wished her luck on her last couple of semesters and on grad school. She thanked me and we each went back to what we'd been doing--- reading, working at a laptop. Five minutes' worth of conversation, ten at the outside. I mention this only because the exchange--- this kind of exchange ---seems now to be regarded as evil.
I'll be more precise. This kind of exchange is now evil, but only if I'd been the one to initiate it. There's been a new front opened in the gender wars, and I missed the reports of the landings.
Oh, I did find the reports, or at least accounts from the front. I found three or four accounts on line--- each with its flurry of angry supporters ---about the evils of conversation. The accounts from the front were all remarkably similar. In each case, a woman was somewhere in public--- on a subway, on a bus ---and reading. A man attempted to strike up a conversation, or at least ask her about the book. Unpleasantness then ensued. It took me a minute to get at the rage each of the women felt. None of the accounts suggested that the man had propositioned the woman reading. None of the accounts suggested that the woman reading was specifically annoyed at having her reading interrupted. None of the accounts suggested that the man was unpleasant or even unattractive. The anger was at something else altogether.
Now--- it may be that the particular scenario--- asking about a book ---is particularly baffling to me. I was brought up to think that readers are a kind of freemasonry, that they're likely to share information, likely to regard sharing information about books as a kind of social ritual...and perhaps a responsibility. In my younger days, I did work at a bookstore. I'm used to talking about books, and books have always been a key social passport for me. So I'm predisposed to ask about books, to ask about authors or topics I'm interested in. Of course it's better if there's an attractive girl with whom I can discuss a book. I certainly won't deny that. If you're going to strike up a conversation, a girl who's a reader, who's reading something you find interesting, is always a good choice. But beyond that, books and enquiries about books always have defined a freemasonry for me. Talking about books is something that even supersedes even Manhattan subway rules about eye contact and sullen silence.
The anger, it seems, isn't so much about being interrupted. It's about the idea that someone male would open a conversation. It's taken for granted that asking about a book is always and ever a poorly-disguised cold proposition for sex, or at least that any effort at asking anything, initiating any conversation, is somehow the same as unwanted sexual attention.
I was brought up to believe in courtesy, in being just a bit tentative and semi-apologetic when asking anyone anything. I was brought up to be polite always, whether in making an enquiry or responding to one. I have never assumed, though, that there was a line of evil in asking someone about a book.
The women recounting these tales were all bitterly angry that someone asked them a question, that someone tried to make conversation. They weren't angered at the particular approach, or at the looks or status of the male. It wasn't that the man said anything untoward, or that he wasn't good enough to speak to her---- the anger wasn't about that at all. The anger was at males in general for thinking they could just open a conversation, that they would ask something that might require a response. Each of the women regarded that--- the need for a response at all ---as a kind of violation.
So here we are. Striking up a conversation is a new front in the war against...what? Flirtation? Social interaction? Well, it is regarded now as on a par with knifepoint or chloroformed rags to ask someone what she's reading. The response--- whether that's a brief discussion about the merits of the book or a curt acknowledgment that you're reading a certain author and title ---is regarded as something taken from the woman with the book. The social need for a response is equated with...well, equated with some kind of sexual aggression.
I have to sigh. This is what it's come to. Yet another front in the gender wars, yet another group of bloggers arguing that any approach, any interaction, probably has some kind of sexual component or intent and is tantamount to sexual aggression, to violation and harassment. I know that I'm all the wrong things (older, male, straight, cisgendered, white, nominally middle class) to be allowed to have opinions on these things, but I am nonetheless left perplexed and saddened and irritated by all this. There's a war here against flirtation, or any social interaction that might have a hint of flirtation to it. There's a demand for a world of atomised and armoured individuals--- a world of windowless monads ---where anything "social" is kept to a strict minimum and anything sexual is excluded altogether.
The girl at the coffee shop this morning asked me about the book I was reading. I was happy to take a few moments to respond, and to make polite conversation. She was attractive, young, intelligent: all the more reason to be happy about talking for a few minutes. The new "social justice" rules may allow her, as the female, to initiate a conversation. Or perhaps not. Perhaps the rules say that by making people like me think that girls are willing to have conversations with male strangers, she's "objectively" a gender traitor. One never knows about these things.
I miss the eighteenth-century arts of conversation and flirtation. I miss the idea that such things are an art, and one worth learning. A world where an enquiry about a book--- even if that's a way of opening a conversation with someone attractive ---is a red flag for evil isn't a world for me. A world where conversation and introductions are thought of as evil is a world where something valuable has been lost. It angers me that the loss is either never thought of or disregarded as simply part of purging evil.