Not Everything is a #MeToo Moment

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Not everything between a woman and a man is a #MeToo moment.

Sometimes a man is just a person.
Sometimes a woman is just a person.

I go to the gym yesterday, doing my best to slow down the aging process. As usual, I’m going to ride a stationary bike (“The bike to nowhere,” a friend calls it) in a quiet studio outfitted with four bikes, two treadmills, and a lot of stretching space and equipment (mats, balls, etc.).

The room’s about 250 feet square, and around the perimeter are mounted a total of four fans, which get a little air moving in the stuffy studio. Each is turned on or off by an old-fashioned pull-cord. People working out turn them on or off as they wish, although when there’s five or six people in the room, people try and cooperate.

There’s no official policy governing this little room off to the side of the central gym. The unofficial etiquette gives slight precedence to the fan arrangement (one or more on or off) that exists when you walk in. Some people care about the fans, others don’t.

So I walk in today and the room is empty except for this one guy (also in his 60s) riding a bike. One of the four fans is on. The room is warm but not awful.

I settle in next to the guy, pull out my New York Times, and start peddling. I’m still on page one when someone (apparently named Pat) about our age walks in, places keys and an iPod on a treadmill, then reaches for the only fan that’s on.

“You don’t mind if I shut this, right?” she says.
The other guy and I each reply, “Wait, please don’t shut it.”
Pat says, “But I don’t want it on.”
“Well, it’s on,” the guy says matter-of-factly.
“It gets really stuffy in here with no air conditioning or fan,” I say, “especially with three of us sweating.”

Neither of us mentions the 12 other treadmills in the gym’s main room.

“But I want it on,” Pat says. “This isn’t fair.”

I’m done talking, but the other guy responds, “It’s two against one, majority rules. It’s democracy.”

“No,” Pat says, “That’s not democracy.” I don’t know what this means, but I’m busy Peddling to Nowhere. “Besides,” Pat says, “What about me? What about MeToo?”

What? Pat’s really grasping at straws, I think. This is just a normal, not-unfriendly bit of negotiating that’s common in everyday life when people want stuff. What’s “fair?” What’s “reasonable?” What’s “graceful?”

But #MeToo?

Oh, I get it: Pat’s a “woman” being oppressed by two “men.”

Funny, I hadn’t thought of Pat as a “woman.” I’d thought of her as a person. A person annoying me, but a person. A sixty-something-year-old person who has either learned to navigate the world or not. The world is full of “people” (including me). We’re all doing the best we can with whatever charm, intelligence, flexibility, and gratitude we can muster.

What if I and the other guy were women, and we both wanted the fan on? What if I and other guy were women, and Pat were a man? Would this incident involve gender, or just “people?”

What if she were a black man, and the other guy and I were white men—would that make this a racial incident? What if she were Jewish and we weren’t—would that make us anti-Semites?

What if she were transgender, and the other guy and I weren’t? Geez, for all I know the guy on the other bike IS transgender. Or the person on the treadmill is.

I don’t care.

If the woman were male, black, transgender, Jewish, or anything else, I’d advocate—briefly—for the fan to be on. And if that person started to yell or cry, I’d acquiesce. It’s not that big a deal.

But either way, this is about people—not gender or any other kind of identity politics.

At some point, we have to stop thinking of ourselves as members of a tribe, and we have to stop treating others that way. Tribal identities divide us, and they declare that the everyday decisions, annoyances, and negotiations that life requires have profound meaning.

History documents that while human cooperation is common and glorious, cooperation is rare when people self-identify primarily as members of a tribe or clan.

We’ve seen how this works: the horrifying civil wars of modern Yugoslavia, the genocide in Rwanda, the century of European religious wars after the Reformation. In each conflict, people transformed their neighbors—Adrien, Maria—into members of a tribe—“Hutu,” “Catholic.” These human beings became “other,” and they had to die.

We’re seeing it now in America, as people argue about who is or isn’t a “real American.” A football player kneeling during the national anthem? According to our President, he’s “a son of a bitch” who should lose his job and leave the U.S.. A physician who performs legal abortions? “Pro-life” people continue to decide that “abortionists” deserve to be murdered.

Men and women are more than the sum of their gender, race, sexual orientation, age, and any other demographic-identifier-du-jour. People are individuals. And while culture and economics matter, each of us makes individual choices. Not tribal choices—individual choices.

Every time I say something that generates any controversy, someone inevitably dismisses it (without having to say anything thoughtful) by saying I’m speaking from White Male Privilege—not knowing if I’ve been blind since birth, or Muslim, or struggle with bipolar disorder, or watched my sister get shot when we were kids.

I also sometimes get criticized for being a jerk, or other names that I won’t reprint in case you’re reading this at work. I much prefer this honest dismissal, rather than an arrogant, pretend-to-be-intellectual dismissal that simply says “My tribe is better than your tribe.”

Not everything is a #MeToo moment. Unless you want to trivialize #MeToo until it’s just whining that happens to be done by a woman.

Which would be a tragic dismissal of women’s genuine suffering.

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