Saturday, January 5, 2013

Fifty-Six: Bubbles

The cartoon is simple enough. It's called XKCD: a web cartoon fairly well known in tech and science circles. This particular strip is one that I hadn't seen until a few days ago, and one that generated a remarkable amount of hostility.

The particular strip (it's called "Creepy") shows a stick figure boy seated near a stick figure girl on a subway. She's working at her computer. The boy says, "Really cute new netbook." The girl looks up and says in horror, "What?" The boy says, "Your laptop. I was just----." The girl then snarls at him, "No--- why were you talking to me?" She goes on--- "Who do you think you are? If I were even slightly interested in you, I'd have shown it!" She turns to everyone else in the subway car and announces that, "Hey, everyone--- this dude's hitting on me!"  You see other voices from the car: "Creep!"  "(mocking laughter)" "Let's get his picture for Facebook to warn others!" The next panel shows that it's all been the boy's thought bubble, and that the boy is facing away from her and sitting as far away as he can get. The girl is tapping away at her laptop, and what she's typing is, "Dear Blog: Cute boy on train is still totally ignoring me."

It is a cute cartoon, and a situation that's probably been the basic premise of thousands of small romantic comedies: mutual misunderstanding, missed opportunities, mutual insecurities. The gender warriors, though, found the strip to be "problematic" and an attack on their whole ideology. You can probably guess the argument. The cartoon, the gender warriors tell us, legitimises harassment. Commenters at the gender warrior blogs all express horror and outrage that someone might speak to a stranger in public, that someone might expect a reply. I'm simply struck dumb by all that.

The gender warrior blogs seem to argue that there are and should be bubbles surrounding everyone in public, that everyone in public should be an atomised particle, with no part in any social network or any   social exchanges. That's a sad way to live. A dreadfully sad way to live.

I'm reasonably shy in public. I dislike inconveniencing anyone, and I dread being thought impolite. So I do sympathise with the boy in the cartoon. There have been any number of times when I didn't speak to a girl at a cafe or a bookshop or a bar simply because I was afraid that she'd be hostile in a public setting. But I'm also someone who seems to attract people--- in airport bars, on subways, at conferences ---who have stories to tell. I've spent more than a few afternoons listening to strangers tell me their stories or having random conversations about what's on the television screens above the bar.

There is such a thing as harassment, certainly. And I do value a certain amount of solitude. But there's just something disheartening about the gender warriors' ideas. They seem to conflate some sort of sexual harassment with what I can only think of as random social interactions. Anyone out in public is out in a social world. At some point random strangers will speak to you. Courtesy demands that you don't cross a line into being intrusive, but courtesy also demands that you acknowledge others and that you respond to politeness with politeness. The gender warriors phrase everything in terms of "rights" and violations--- how dare someone expect me to respond? how dare someone enter my world? No one deserves to be pestered, anyone saying that they do?

A part of the gender warriors' claim is that any time a male speaks to a female he doesn't know, it must be a kind of sexual advance, and an unwelcome one by definition. That's fairly self-evidently untrue, though it is in line with the gender warriors' view of males and all male-female interactions. So many commenters who joined in the attack on the XKCD cartoon took that position for granted. Many others were outraged that a cartoon seemed to be saying that speaking to a stranger was acceptable, that they might have to someday say a few polite words in response.

There are limits and distinctions here that seem to elude the gender warriors and their commentariat. What most disheartens me, I think, is simply the attitude that being spoken to at all is a kind of violation. I'm not terribly social, and I'm shy enough in person. I would be deeply ashamed to be found intrusive, to be found a pest. I also value my own ability to just be somewhere and be alone with my thoughts. But I've had wonderful conversations with some strangers over the years, and I'll always respond politely to a polite question or remark.

I do sympathise with the stick-figure boy in the cartoon. His fears are hardly unwarranted. And I once again find the gender warriors disheartening. I'd like to think that one can still be part of a world where it's possible to have polite, random social interactions--- a world where we aren't all sealed inside armoured bubbles, a world where other people aren't regarded as simply a set of demands and intrusions.

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