Three weeks ago, in New York City, as I rode the 4-5 train downtown, I was shoved, cursed at, and spun around by an angry young man.
The altercation began when he moved my friend, a young woman new to the city, aside, and declared, “I am not going to get fucking stuck.”
When he got to me, I asked him how I could help him, but he was not interested in my help because I was in his way. He hit my arm off the railing I’d been holding; he grabbed either side of my torso, spun, and called me some bad words.
As soon as he’d turned the encounter into a physical one, I quickly decided that I would return no violence of my own. Yes, I was afraid. But I could see that he was, too; something was upsetting to him, and it couldn’t have been me. Nor could it have been the reasons he expressed: that I had allegedly been hovering over an old lady, that I was taking up too much space.
I tried to stand still, because I could tell he had placed me right where he wanted me. He did not want me to hang onto any pole or railing, and so I wobbled, wondering whether my assailant was capable of still more violence, contemplating trying diplomacy again, and ultimately resolving to remain silent and get off at the next stop.
Once at Grand Central, my friend and I got off the train, relieved that our brief moments in the face of aggression had ended. It didn’t occur to me until later, when I told a male friend about the incident, to wonder whether my conduct had been sufficiently manly.
“You should’ve smacked that dude,” he said. “You let a girl get shoved.”
Is it strange that I felt the need to defend my choice not to hit another human being? The guy was stronger than me, he’d already shown he was unrestrained by the norms of subway behavior, he could have been capable of further escalation—all this I explained in hopes of being absolved.
“If that had been me,” he said, “I would have fucked him up.”
“But I’m a lot smaller than you,” I replied. Why did I think this relevant? Even if I’d been my friend’s size, which I am decidedly not, I wouldn’t have taken a swing; but I nonetheless ceded the terms of the debate, implicitly accepting that hitting the person would have been preferable, if possible. Part of me, some lingering remnant of an old me, felt that I’d lost the interaction on the subway – and that I was losing this interaction with my friend. I was twice emasculated and resentful for it.
“It’s about respect,” he said. “Even if he had knocked you out, he would have respected you more for standing up.”
I briefly imagined myself bleeding on a subway floor, consoled by the fact that at least people were going to respect me more as consciousness left me.
The final chapter of this argument began with a lighthearted discussion of politics, if there is such a thing today. But the political is personal, and my disagreements with this friend were inevitably filtered through my friend’s personal litmus test, which has to do with perceived manliness and the lack thereof. This discussion ended with his telling me to “get your ass kicked on the subway again,” and exiting the room.
All of which left me to explicate this argument in my own head, marshalling defenses against the critique that I had behaved in a less than manly way when faced with aggression on the subway. I decided to call the woman who was with me, and who had been shoved first, to get her opinion.
In reality, I suspect I was calling her to reassure me that I was right and my friend was wrong. She did that, explaining that any escalation of the violence would have made her feel less safe, not more. But I still wasn’t totally convinced that I hadn’t somehow failed.
I thought about another time in my life when I’d made a choice while in fear.
Once, when I was ten years old, I traveled to Ireland with my parents, and spent part of the trip at a friend’s home. I befriended some of the neighborhood kids who were not much older than I was. One wet afternoon, a group of us was kicking a soccer ball around on an open field, when one of the kids—the one I considered my closest friend in the bunch—made some teasing comments about my soccer skills. The other kids sensed an opportunity to escalate things. They held my friend, and told me to hit him. Was I going to let him get away with his mockery?
I stepped forward and swung my open palm toward his face, and wound up hitting him in the throat. He gagged, as tears filled his eyes and he fell to his knees, and the other kids laughed.
The next day, I tried to make amends. “They told me to take a free shot at you,” I explained.
“Right,” he said. “But I wouldn’t have taken a free shot at you.” And he went inside.
I’d shown those Irish kids that I was a real man, and I wasn’t going to take anybody’s shit. And I was a lesser person for it: for my one friend, I’d demonstrated the fickleness of frightened, broken people, and shown the lengths to which some will go to not be thought weak.
But I hope I have grown since then, grown to see that this world, for all its danger, is not a field on which to either dominate or be dominated. I hope that I understand—really understand—that the need to win, to assert myself, to show I’m not soft, is not a sign of strength, but its opposite.
And yet, I still see in myself that old fear, the fear that I’m not enough, the fear that I’m not a “real man,” the fear of losing respect – and I shudder to imagine what fearful men, from the subway car to the White House, might do to keep that fear at bay.