The gender wars always bring out the worst in people--- or at least in people who comment at blogs. The other morning I ran across another article at Jezebel.com about cat-calling. The focus was on how even presumed compliments from males in public made women feel threatened and uneasy. The comments, though, veered off very quickly into rants about how horrible it was that males might actually open a conversation in public, even about something innocuous.
Now--- one ranter did make an interesting point. Someone had asked her once about a book she was reading, and she went on and on about how aggressive and oppressive that was, since any male attention is by definition a "micro-aggression", and then offered up as proof the idea that no one male would ever have asked another about something like that. That's a point worth exploring a bit, since there's some truth in it. Males--- straight males ---have very, very limited places where they can engage in any conversation with one another. Commenting down the bar about a sports game is allowed under the Arbitrary Social Rules, and it's allowed to ask someone else at a café table or on a commuter train to borrow a section of a newspaper--- but those two things are about all I can think of. And, yes, it's obvious where that comes from. It's fear of being thought gay, the fear of being thought to be cruising someone.
Does that imply that any attempt to speak with a girl is always cruising--- a cold approach, something sexual? All I can say is that it's not always that--- though when I'm talking to a lovely girl, there's always at least a hint of flirtation, no matter how pro forma. I was brought up in very old-school politeness that looks a lot like flirting these days, and the character I've always tried to become very much believes in that kind of courtesy--- courtesy in a rather eighteenth-century sense. That's not a cold approach, or not always. But I do want to convey that the girl to whom I'm talking is interesting, and that I appreciate her conversation, appreciate her willingness to talk to me. I'd like her to come away from the conversation feeling that someone was at least a bit charmed by her.
[I've said before that I'm taken aback by the anger that blog commenters have for anyone (male) asking a girl about a book she's reading. I'm private and solitary, and I don't want to feel like I'm intruding on anyone. Still, I hate the idea that you can't ask someone about a book--- again, I'd always thought of readers as a kind of freemasonry, as a group who are always looking for recommendations on new books and critiques of books others have read. Even if I don't want to spend a whole afternoon talking with someone, I'm pretty much always ready to answer a question about whatever I'm reading. ]
The ranters at the Jezebel article were rage-filled that anyone would talk to them in public, rage-filled that anyone might try to open a conversation. No one likes a pest, and people are often busy with things--- take that as a given. Sometimes, though, I wonder if three-quarters of blog commenters everywhere are just violently opposed to any kind of social interaction. A friend offered two thoughts--- that all these people are somewhere on the autism spectrum or are all young enough not to recall a time before laptops and smartphones and iPads--- a time when people weren't always absorbed in their own worlds, when people had less choice about in-the-flesh conversations. I have no way to comment on the first idea--- that's something I don't know a thing about. The second thing, though...hmmm. Maybe. I can see how that could be part of things. It's something I need to ask Millennial friends about--- or ask someone like my friend Ms. Flox. The keynote in the rants is that any conversation, any opening question or greeting, is a demand for attention, and that having to take notice of someone else is always oppressive, always a threat.
I'm someone who moves through streets very quietly; I'm someone who tries to take up as little social and physical space as possible. But I'm disheartened by the kind of worlds the ranters seem to envision--- isolated, armoured, atomized. It's a world where no one (meaning no one male) speaks first, where there's no socially acceptable way to speak first. It's not just that the ranters' world has no place for flirtation, it's that almost every contact becomes all about power and aggression. The rants don't even seem to be talking about a world where physical safety for girls is better--- they seem to be about a world where no one speaks to anyone in public, where there are fewer and fewer ways to initiate any social contact, where there are fewer and fewer acceptable reasons to initiate any social contact.
That's not a world where I want to live--- it's not even a world where I could live.