Unlearn

Reporter Alex Bozarjian, a journalist with the NBC News affiliate out of Savannah, Georgia, was broadcasting live from an annual holiday charity race when a runner named Tommy Callaway slapped her on the behind as he jogged past. A quick poll of long-distance runners reveals that this is completely acceptable, totally normal behavior when you’re pushing your body to its limits, keeping your eyes peeled for the next water/doughnut break (I assume), and trying not to die. Also: no one thinks this is completely acceptable, totally normal behavior.

Callaway is a 43-year old white male, married with two kids. The Savannah Sports Council has banned him from all future events (no roving doughnut stands for you, Callaway). He has officially been charged with sexual battery.  ultimately charged with sexual battery. Callaway told news outlets:

I was caught up in the moment. I was getting ready to bring my hands up and wave to the camera and to the audience and there was a misjudge in character and decision-making. I touched her back. I did not know exactly where I touched her, he added. I just kept on running, and if I did see her facial reaction, I would have been embarrassed. I’d have felt ashamed, and I would have stopped, turned around and went back and apologized to her.

To recap, Callaway’s defense is as follows:

Though I had full control over my body for the duration of this challenging athletic event, I saw a news camera with a female news camera person and lost my mind. In the same instant, my hands began to operate independently of my body! Due to the mysteries of fine motor skills, which until this moment, I had been in charge of my entire waking life, my hand inexplicably and of its own accord reversed its course position and landed on this womans back. No, not her back, but not where she says and news footage shows where I touched her. I do not know where. I have no recollection. It depends on what the definition of is is.

I continued to run because I had no control over my body (see above). I did not see her face. I only admit wrong doing when I am physically confronted with the consequences of my actions by another person. I assumed her face was one of those blurred-out things they use on crime documentaries or maybe a collection of blocks like in that popular Minecraft video game I cant get my kids to stop playing. Kids, right?! But had I encountered an actual face of a living human, I mos probs would have apologized for not having any control over my hands or body (see above).

Oh dear potato-faced Tommy Callaway, which I have to make this aside: Right now your only redeeming quality is having the pitch perfect Boston-Irish name for either Ben Affleck or Mark Wahlberg’s next movie about gritty ex-cops turned bar owners turned boxers turned priests in South Boston. Tommy, you had the chance to straight up own your stupidity in a genuine way. It would sting, a lot. The shame would cling to you for a good, long while. You would probably have to participate in some very awkward conversations and engage in painful self-reflection. I realize that for men especially, this is not as appealing and adrenaline fueled as wrestling a moose or yelling at immigrant children to stay out of our country, but I didn’t get a say when “entrenched crap tropes of masculinity” came up for a vote. We work with what we have.

Instead, Callaway gave us a lot of shifting from foot to foot, much like a little kid who has to go to the bathroom, with his whole “I got caught up in the moment” nonsense. I somehow manage to make it through shopping in a Lindt chocolate store without ripping open bags of truffles and smashing them into my face. I guess that everyone’s “caught up in the moment” threshold is negotiable or maybe those of us who aren’t straight, white males understand impulse control just a bit differently?

I don’t excuse or condone Callaway’s behavior. But I wonder if part of his watery defense comes from fear and confusion with the changed landscape of his masculine world. That his actions might have gone both noticed and explicitly challenged is a reality that he was probably never raised to think much about. Like many of his peers, Callaway is blinking into the light of a world resembling an episode of Black Mirror where everything feels slightly skewed, where there is enough familiarity to navigate by, but it’s also a place where cartoons talk back to you and your blender wants to assume your identity. How to proceed? Unlearn.

Men are being asked to dismantle centuries of cultural conditioning about gender and its interlocking elements: race, class, and privilege. This is back-breaking labor that will leave permanent grime underneath your fingernails. But it’s simply necessary. And they are not alone in this task.

A couple of weeks ago I stopped in at Kohl’s to return an item. As I approached the entrance, I noticed a man behind me. He was in his late-70s, shuffling slowly, using one of the store’s carts as a kind of walker. He stopped at the lip of the curb cut, which was raised about a half-inch. It was just enough to get you hung up if you don’t have the strength or balance to push over it. Without thinking, I stopped and grabbed the front of his cart to scooch it up over the edge. His face lit up into a huge smile. He thanked me profusely. I laughed and shrugged. Common human decency and compassion shouldn’t be treated with the same kind of hero’s welcome as curing diabetes, but I’ll take it.

I held the door open for the gentleman. He continued to thank me and I continued to smile and shake my head. There was nothing remarkable going on here. Key to the city? What? Me?! No, I can’t. I shouldn’t! Before he entered the store, he thanked me one last time, reaching out to pat me on the arm. The pat turned into a pull and before I knew it, my cheek was colliding with my new Grandpa’s lips.

Record scratch

Sad trombone

Gink-gink-goink sound of Pac-Man getting devoured by Blinky the Ghost

My body froze along with my smile. I pulled away. Grandpa toddered into the store, perhaps prepared to return acts of retail kindness with more smoochin. I felt confused and tired and sad and tired some more.

The feminist in me banshee-wailed: NEVER OKAY! I AM NOT YOUR TROPHY THING HERE FOR YOUR PLEASURE! BOUNDARIES! MY BODY IS NOT FOR YOU!! HOW DARE YOU?!

The “nice girl” in me said: “What’s the big deal, anyway? He’s old. It’s harmless. What could you have really done? Yelled at this elderly man and possibly given him a stroke? Then you wouldn’t have made your return and you would have had to fill out paper work. C’mon, now.”

It happened so fast as these things usually do, as Alex Bozarjian and millions of other woman can testify. I did nothing wrong, but I still feel like I let myself down. I wish I had responded differently, but how, I’m still not sure. Watching an Olivia Pope or Veronica Mars or Cristina Yang shut down someone’s malarkey and actually doing it are two very different things, especially for many of us mired in “be nice” socializing when we actually long to down shift into default setting: ass kickery.

It’s wrong to make women feel responsible for harassment, assault, and other forms of gendered violence. School dress codes for girls often get framed as ways to deter boys from aggravating girls. Maybe just teach boys respect, dignity, and lawfulness and let girls wear their Fortnight leggings? It’s also wrong to expect men to shoulder all the responsibility for adopting and implementing new attitudes and actions that will benefit all of us. Unlearning is a two-way street.

I spent most of my adolescence in Reagan’s America with its conservative “family values” policies and finger-wagging “just say no,” anti-drug campaigns. I was too young to know anything about second wave feminism, but from a pop culture stand-point, it seemed to be idling like my Dad’s hulking Buick LeSabre. Strong, progressive women portrayed in movies and TV were undercut by the prevailing misogyny of the day, which treated these characters as either ruthless, bitchy (and not in the hashtag bossbitch kind of way) “man eaters” or as women just taking a little field trip, a small power nap, from their traditional feminine responsibilities.

You were either taught to be good, to be “nice,” which was code for polite, quiet, deferential, and largely uncritical about anyone or anything; or you were taught to break things and make noise, to take up space, and challenge everyone and everything. I did not know any of those kinds of girls or women in real life. Who wanted to be Ursula when you could be Ariel? I only knew which one I was supposed to be, which one came without consequences, which one would ultimately lay the foundation of my anger.   

I come from a generation with a lot of unlearning to do. I shouldn’t be tasked with making sure you’re not offended or put out at the expense of my own wellbeing and comfort. I don’t need permission to take that position nor do I want to wait around for you to give it to me.

The hardest part about letting go of behaviors and changing mindsets is that it takes practice, it requires action. I recently read a quote by Jerry Garcia who said, “No one is born to play guitar. The gift is the patience to learn how.” That doesn’t mean a green light on lazy, ignorant, or terrible choices. You flunked the test, but can still pass the class. No. It means we’re all responsible for the collective work of change. It means understanding that work is imperfect, scary, unfinished, contentious, and vital.

I wonder if Callaway will continue to twist and turn his actions around to make them more palatable to himself, his family and friends, and the in the court of public opinion, or if he’ll treat the incident for what it is—an invitation for him to unlearn and be a part of progress and healing and empowerment. I wonder if next time, I will.