Thursday, June 28, 2018

Toronto is better. Except for the thing with the cars.

Whenever I'm in both my hometown of New York City and my current home of Toronto in a short span of time, I can't help but compare. And it's a comparison where Toronto does quite well. Not always, but generally. Even setting aside (is this possible, though?) such things as universal healthcare; the knowledge that Trump either is or is not the leader of the country you're in (though I did see a MAGA hat today in Pusateri's); and Canada's flaws and xenophobes versus America's... baby-cage immigration policy, Toronto, for me at least, generally comes out ahead.

Day to day, it's just more livable. Mostly, the streets here are not coated in garbage-juice slick, with the accompanying smell (and water bugs) this implies. Apparently it's possible to have a big and vibrant city without a layer of filth. Who knew? The subways... there aren't a whole lot of them here, but the ones there are will arrive every few minutes, with the time posted, and with stations not covered in a still-stickier version of the sidewalk slime. The streetcars are also a good time, most of the time anyway.

And while both cities are expensive/gentrified, this is to wildly different degrees. In Toronto it means there are lots of often-but-thankfully-not-always expensive little shops and cafés. Whereas in New York, it's empty storefronts (the landlords apparently holding out hope for ultra-upscale tenants) interrupted by the occasional bank or Potbelly sandwich establishment. It baffles me to no end that Torontonians make shopping trips to New York, when the journey makes so, so much more sense in the other direction. What are they even buying? (The Everlane showroom and Reformation sample sale had such potential, but were meh and disappointing, respectively. Whereas Durumi, it's like, please ring it all up, yes even the stuff meant for 19-year-olds.)

But then there's this one teensy thing: cars. For whichever structural and cultural reasons, in Toronto, crossing the street is regularly a near-death experience, while in New York, not so much.

The structural bit is clear: Toronto's a city of large, two-way streets, with right on red permitted, and with much of the population living in places not well-served by public transportation.* Parking spots are often on the sidewalk itself, and even where they're not, ubiquitous garages mean you risk getting hit by a car even between intersections. Also: there aren't a whole lot of crosswalks, even in high-foot-traffic areas. West Queen West is basically a more dense (and fun!) version of Bedford in Williamsburg, with plenty on both sides of the street, but practically no way to get from one side to the other. The city's layout is such that the limited attention paid to car-alternatives seems to focus on biking, as versus walking. This, even though the climate here is maaaybe a bit more conducive to the latter. 

In terms of the city's layout, I have to admit, carless though I am here, it's genuinely limiting here not to have a car. A fact I'm reminded of every time I look up some destination (generally Japanese groceries) in another part of town. (Google Maps tells me it's an hour and five minutes to the Japanese strip mall by public transit, or 28 minutes by car.) But I can just... walk to HMart for many of the same ingredients. For me and my udon needs, it's not a big deal. But if any part of your routine (work, school, etc.) demands a journey like the one I've described, then yeah you likely need a car. I can't rule out the possibility of this at some point applying to me, either.

The cultural factors are trickier for me to make sense of, but I suspect the usual stigma on adult carlessness, which much of New York somehow avoids, exists here, even in the absence of necessity. There's also a pedestrian culture of respecting (or just not wanting to be mowed down by?) drivers. It's not just that, when the pedestrian and traffic lights turn green, one or several cars get to make the right turn before however many pedestrians get to cross. (You can try to march ahead, but this will lead either to coming close to getting run over or just to getting drivers furious.) It's also the infuriating thing where you get to an intersection and a fellow pedestrian is gesturing that rare, reticent driver to go ahead and make the turn, without acknowledging that maybe other pedestrians don't want this or more to the point, didn't see this in time.

In any case, the news here is full of stories of... exactly what feels like it's going to happen all the time. People walking or biking beside the massive highway system that is our downtown roads end up getting mowed down. As I understand it, political opposition to this state of affairs isn't where it needs to be. ('Cars are people, too' seems to be a respectable opinion.) So how about it, Toronto? Why not let the people cross?

*If you're willing to put up with NY-style space and amenities or lack thereof, then you, too, might be able to live somewhere in Toronto where driving isn't necessary. Whenever someone wonders at my walk to work, I feel obliged to explain the laundry; space; and a/c situations, none of which are, by this city's standards, what might be considered optimal. I also think having spent the first few years of my life sharing a one-bedroom with my parents makes me less sympathetic than most to the notion that having even one child somehow ethically necessitates such luxuries as extra rooms; a yard; and the ability to drive around several children at a time. The notion that carless urbanites are simply rich people who can afford to live suburban lifestyles but in the city center doesn't necessarily add up.

Saturday, June 02, 2018

The Incel Question

When it arrived in the last few news cycles, the incel phenomenon was not entirely new to me. I was in Santa Barbara not long after the most notorious incel attack, and was a couple Toronto neighborhoods away when the most recent one occurred. (Or maybe not the most recent? More on that in a moment.) And if we go back further still, in my too-online grad school years, I would sometimes horrified-read the "game" or pick-up artist blogs, or mainly just one of them. I knew that something along those lines was out there.

But I confess that despite copious depths-of-the-internet research behind me, involuntary celibacy is not my research area. (While I'm sure there is a privilege angle on incels, for the book, it didn't really come up.) Because of this, when the topic first made the news, I would just sort of nod along, thinking that yes, I know from offline life, there are some men who truly never get a date, despite (maybe?) wanting to, and while there are also some women in that situation, it's much more common-sense plausible to me that some men in that situation would become violent. (That is, unless self-harm counts.) It all seemed to add up, so I wasn't really questioning it.

Then it hit me. It was around the time the "Stacy" - "Becky" meme was making the rounds. The meme, for link non-clickers, shows the two types of women: one ("Becky") a slender, gamine-type brunette, ala Rooney Mara, the other, "Stacy," resembling a young Pamela Anderson. It was much remarked, on Twitter, that these are both young, conventionally-attractive, white women. Why does this matter? (I'm getting to my epiphany about this, I promise.) Not because it's the done thing on progressive Twitter to list privilege-category qualities for the heck of it (even if, sometimes, yes), but because it offers an insight into the incel outlook: "Women," for this set, are defined as hot women. As women they want to sleep with, or who it would impress their peers to have around. Plain-looking or ugly women, or women over whichever age (22?), or for the racists among them (and sounds like racists are indeed among them!), women who aren't white, simply do not register.

So here, specifically, is what hit me: There are - again, evidence being, offline life - men who think like this. Men who pull a 'no woman will have me' when what they mean is that they're 50 but no 20-something will go out with them. Or that they're a quiet, geeky boy and the homecoming queen hasn't reciprocated. These men are not, by and large, society's undateable outcasts. They're men with unrealistic expectations, who choose to ignore the romantic options they do have. Which is, in and of itself, no crime - if you want to restrict yourself to supermodels, but are prepared for the near-certainty of this demand keeping you single, then by all means! Which is, in general, what seems to happen where straight women with unrealistic expectations are concerned - if anything sometimes unrealistic stated expectations are a way for women who actually wish to remain single to deflect busybodies asking them why they haven't settled down.

The problem that inevitably arises is that these men are not OK with the injustice of 'no woman' wanting them. They get resentful, misogynistic, bitter. They feel - pardon the over-used word, but here it sure applies - entitled. The anger itself is real, even if the 'no woman will have me' bit is a figment of their imagination, fueled by their warped definition of who counts as a woman. Consider the more-recent-than-Toronto Texas school shooting, where the killer may (or may not) have been inspired by a girl's rejection. Was that an "incel" attack? Or might it fall within the depressingly everyday category of male-entitlement-fueled violence?

But that's only Part I of the epiphany. Part II: these men - the ones calling themselves incels or committing crimes in the name of that identity - are young. Teens, early 20s. If you feel, in high school, that no one will date you, or indeed if your experience, in high school, is that no one has expressed interest in you romantically, that is... not remarkable. Add to that cohort people whose high school experience is that no one they like likes them back, and this is truly a ton of people. Girls and boys alike.

There's thus something not just unethical (as has been amply discussed) but absurd about discussing "redistribution" - of sex, let alone of wives - to men too young to (necessarily) have either. That a man, at 21, hasn't found love doesn't make him one of society's forgotten. Most of the time, it makes him a man who hasn't had his first girlfriend yet, but who will within the next few years. The pain of being  21 - or 15! - and not having your overtures reciprocated is plenty real. But it's an entirely normal part of youth for many, regardless of gender. The way to address it is to remind young people of that fact. It's not to find ways to address the 'injustice' of not every teenager having a partner. To conflated undesired singleness at 35, 40 with undesired datelessness at 18 is quite bonkers. But it's what's required to believe "incel" is a thing, or, rather, is the thing it presents itself as.

Putting these two items together: There's been this great media discussion about The Men Who Can't Get A Woman - not consensually and not without paying. While such men doubtless exist, there doesn't appear to be any reason to believe the self-identified "incels" are all or even mostly members of that demographic. They might just as easily be a) men who can't get unattainable women to date them, b) boys and young men at an age where only their most socially adept classmates have paired off, or some combination. Yes, these men are angry. But men are - again, I speak from offline anecdote, not Reddit research - often angry for mundane Category A and B sorts of reasons.

Moreover, figuring out just how involuntarily celibate the incels are would be tricky, given that Category A men may genuinely believe that no woman would have them, simply because women over 22 or over 120 pounds are not on their radar.

The trouble is that The Incel is - to borrow from how historian Ronald Schechter brilliantly explained the role of The Jew (as in, the abstract idea of Jews) for the French Enlightenment - "good to think." The notion of the man who, try as he might, can't find a living soul who'll date him is indeed sad and intellectually compelling.

I'm not going to bother discussing "redistribution" arguments any further. Clearly, even if the incel phenomenon is indeed entirely about the most tragic cases, these men are not owed partners. I'm instead going to mention two otherwise good essays that make mistake of assuming, without questioning this, that "incels" are men who can't find women.

Jessa Crispin makes a thoughtful case for a society less fixated on coupledom:

If love and sex can be divorced from status and privilege, if we can reimagine what makes a partner desirable, if we can provide a stable alternative to married life that is something other than a life alone, we can alleviate suffering. Not only for the angry young men of the internet, but for everyone who is alienated and lonely.
As does Dan Savage, regarding stigmatization of sex work:
[A] cultural transformation that’s long overdue and goes hand in hand with the notion that women, not men, own their own bodies: adults who do sex work of their own free will shouldn’t be stigmatized (or treated like criminals) and adults who hire adults doing sex work of their own free will shouldn’t be stigmatized (or treated like criminals). The former cultural transformation will solve the “incel” problem; the latter will lessen the misery of sexual deprivation, i.e. involuntary celibacy.
Neither Crispin nor Savage is coming at the topic with generosity towards violent self-id'd involuntary celibates. That's not the issue here. Both make persuasive arguments for a kinder society. (If not precisely the ones I'd make, which is really beside the point here.) Both, however, anchor their progressive arguments in the incel question: If society improves like so, this will make everyone happier, and also, no more incels. Both, in other words, implicitly agree that the incels are indeed involuntarily celibate, or as Crispin puts it, "alienated from the romantic and sexual marketplace."

Why am I holding forth on this? Because I think there's a danger in taking The Incel Question at face value. Doing so leads inevitably to sympathy where none (or, at least, far less) may be needed. It also reinforces the idea that there's something specific and urgent about men who aren't romantically satisfied. This is particularly true of Savage's argument, which begins with an acknowledgment that men and women alike experience ongoing rejection, but offers an answer that only addresses the men. I say this not just because the answer he gives is destigmatized sex work (which in theory could involve male sex workers for straight women), but because midway through the post, he switches over to talking just about men:
There are men out there who are so profoundly socially disabled—so socially awkward or maladapted or damaged—that they just as incapable of finding finding sex and/or romance through 'normal' channels as a quadriplegic confined to a bed in his mother’s home. 
Now, one might say, of course he's focusing on men; that's who, when lonely, sometimes get violent! But this just brings me back to my point about it being unreasonable (maybe even credulous) to pin male violence on extreme loneliness. Especially when one considers - as some of the response to The Incel Question, including by Savage himself elsewhere, thankfully has - that far more male violence targets women that men are or had been romantically involved with.