Some stuff makes you feel dirty. Like this Steph Strayer/ Man Bragging about Cheating on his Wife on Commuter Train/ Facebook Photo Posting Gone Viral/ Public Shaming/ Ethical Slugfest/ Gender Resentment Cesspool/ Mom Strikes Back at Dirtbag Pig Man thing.
After a week of that I feel like an old rabbi in a raincoat shuffling out of a peep show. It had everything.
So what was it about this episode that caught our emotions?
- Fear of being in a similar situation. Many of us don’t trust our spouses. It’s a primal fear that the person we sleep with will be somebody else out there. Think of those commuter train scenes in “Mad Men.”
- Solidarity with the woman for striking out. Women are powerless and mistreated in a thousand different ways every day and it feels good to see one strike out.
- Satisfaction at a man getting his just deserts. Many of us have been bullied and it feels good to see some guy get it in the neck.
The narrative is deliciously compelling. Why? Because it involves:
- The powerless taking power
- An annoying person getting his comeuppance
But the ethical question is complex. It wasn’t a simple matter of justice being done. He might have been innocent. The risk was asymmetrical. It was not a fair fight. Some may see her action as cowardly. So as drama it wasn’t ultimately satisfying. Maybe that's why it seems to already be trending downward off the Internet.
As a story, how could it be better? It lacks an ending. What should she have done? What actions were available to her? Should she have spoken directly to the man, either publicly, to call him out, or privately? Should she have called the conductor? Gotten someone else, an authority figure, to speak to him? What fears must arise in such a charged situation? When our emotions are engaged, we often aren't able to think clearly.
Here is what I imagine her doing, in the ideal world. I like the idea of her confronting him. It’s honorable and courageous. It continues the plot. It makes her out to be a hero. It removes the ethical ambiguity.
I imagine her doing something like this: First she secretly snaps some photos of him just in case. Then she turns her phone on record and puts it in her purse so she can record what is about to take place, and walks up the aisle and sits down beside him and quietly says,
"Sir, I have been listening to you and your companions here for over two hours. You have talked with great disrespect about the women in your lives. You have confessed to deeply and yet blithely betraying those women in your lives. Those women who are just like me. Those women who are mothers, sisters, daughters, daughters of men you would probably respect if you met them in your place of work or at school. So I have come over here, at some great risk to myself, as I do not know you and what I am about to say may make you angry. I just have to tell you that what you have been saying is deeply offensive. Not just to me but to everyone on this train. That includes the other men on this train. That includes even your friends here if they had the courage to tell you. If they would only admit it. They want to be good men. You want to be a good man. Maybe you have been hurt. Maybe your marriage isn’t what you hoped it would be. That happens. Life isn’t perfect. But you’re a man. Act like one. Because if the women in your lives could hear you talk I guarantee they would walk out on you right now.
What we have just heard come out of your mouth does not represent who you really want to be and you know it. This is not the man who stood at the altar with a woman and professed your love and devotion. That promise you made on the altar, that wasn’t just a promise to pay the rent and be home in time to slide into bed and watch Letterman. That was a promise to carry respect in your heart. Respect for this woman. In your heart, sir. That doesn’t mean just when you’re around the house and the relatives are there. That means in your heart, all the time, when you are alone under the stars, when you are driving on the road, when you are riding the train: All the time you show this woman the respect she deserves.
And if you’re not doing that, then you don’t deserve her and you should just call her up right now and tell her that you don’t deserve her and you’re through. Don’t you think? Don’t you think she deserves to know the truth? What’s her number? Let’s call her right now. What are you scared of? You’re scared the little woman is going to get mad at you? Scared she’s going to pull your ear and march you in the house and pull down your pants and give you a spanking? Come on, dude. Call her. Let her know what you really think. Let’s just talk to her.
Then meet with me at this diner at 6 o’clock next Thursday evening. Here's the address. Be there.
I’ve already taken your photo and if you don't show up, your fat mug is going out on the Internet with the headline: "Is this your husband?"
Sometimes men just need the opportunity to learn. That’s what I’m giving you.
Then she picks up the shoe bag that’s got her stiletto heels in it and she says, "This is my stop. I’ll be seeing ya."
That’s the scenario I like. I like it because she’s less morally ambiguous. The guy gets a chance to redeem himself.
She shows courage. It involves choice and tension: Will he show up? Is he dangerous? What’s she got planned for him? What’s her deal?
And then, when they meet, I don't know, maybe she’s got her whole batch of friends who’ve been cheated on by husbands and they just share their stories with him. I haven’t really worked out that part yet.
Of course, if she were asking for my advice in real life, I’m not sure I’d advise it. But this is theater. Once people's lives become part of the ongoing Internet reality show, it's theater. It engages our imaginations and fantasies. It's the world of wishes and emotional satisfaction, of story premise and second acts.
My conclusion? I’m glad this happened because it plucks many strands of feeling in American life. It is a cautionary tale. It reminds us how powerless women can feel in the presence of rude men in public and how strong is the desire for revenge. It suggests the lack of a public moral authority and our ongoing gender power imbalance. It suggests that we lack tools for enforcing codes of behavior. It underscores the need for people to confront each other in real time rather than on social media.
Perhaps it will have a brief chilling effect on obnoxious behavior. We shall see.
Meanwhile, I read just a few pieces on the Net stemming from the incident, and this one I actually enjoyed.