A few days ago, on the 13th of September, I was taking the Q train to Brooklyn. A woman standing across from me was reading the New York City Subway map. As she was figuring out the directions, she accidentally stepped on a man’s foot. The man went on a rage. First, in an act of revenge he stomped on her foot and kicked her knee. Then he cursed her out and yelled, “You are stupid. Do you know why? Because you are a woman!” He repeated this several times, each time with more intensity and anger. The scene was chaotic and seemed to only escalate.
I confronted the man and told him that he was clearly in the wrong . He asked me, “Did you see what she did?” And then proclaimed, “No woman can disrespect a man like that!” I replied that his reaction was completely overblown and that the woman was the victim in the whole encounter. But he then directed the attack against me, yelling, “Who the fu*k are you to speak to me like that?!”
After going back and forth with him, another passenger who was standing next to me, perhaps in his late 40’s or early 50’s, but had a muscular build and reminded me of Bruce Willis, also engaged the man by trying to explain why he was in the wrong. During this whole ordeal, which lasted a while, the woman was just standing still, in shock and afraid to move, probably fearing the man would follow her even if she got off at one of the stops. Finally, while we were still confronting him, one more passenger stepped in to help and pulled the woman away from the situation. Engaging the man had distracted him and opened up an opportunity for the woman to escape. After the escape, the man finally ceased his violence.
This experience made me reflect on how we turn on each other. Rather than having mercy on this innocent woman, the accidentally mistreated passenger turns his rage, based no doubt on his own treatment at the hands of the ruling class, on a rather innocent, accidental offender. There is the fact of the masses and their treatment by the system, such that they are corralled underground and forced into such tight quarters that they end up steeping on each other. The man’s behavior and obvious sexism is a product of this wretched system. This is not at all to say I am excusing his actions. Not at all. But if we really want to stop this brutality, which is quite common, we have to be able to look at the background societal conditions that make this kind of behavior possible.
One might object that I am speculating about this man’s class position. But I have no doubt that he is a working class subject. Otherwise, he would not be in the subway. Again one might be puzzled by this statement — are there not middle class people using the subway all the time? The term “middle class”, though, is largely a misnomer as it is applied. Most people who are supposedly “middle class” are actually working class. This is because they depend on wages for survival. So indeed, most people using the subway are working-class subjects.
But what if this man was just crazy? There are always crazies around us, and it is possible the man has a tumor in his brain which is making him act in all these ways. The point of raising this possibility is that it potentially reveals certain assumptions that my case rests on, and if they are not true, the whole case is in jeopardy. My first reply to this objection is that even though it is possible this man has a tumor, it is much more probable that he does not as a general matter. Secondly, given that the man eventually had calmed down suggests he was not completely insane. He was still a rational being. This makes clear that he was utterly agitated by the conditions. Indeed, it is important to note that most mentally-ill people are poor.
What adds to the complexity of this case is the man’s sexism and misogyny. In this essay I could simply attribute misogyny to the man and proceed from there. However, given how prominent this attribute was to the whole experience of the situation, I cannot ignore it. So I will entertain a thought. The late Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich had an elaborate theory about this subject. Very roughly, Reich in his Charakteranalyse posited that violence and patriarchy cause people to accumulate muscle tension which made them not able to experience pleasure and in turn not want other people to experience pleasure. It is hard to say whether there is enough evidence to support this theory, but it is certainly provocative and insightful. Perhaps Reich’s analysis can help us understand how poverty generates misogyny because of the kind of conditions that poverty creates. Whether or not Reich is correct, my point is that it is broadly clear that people clash more when they are crushed.
Lastly, the reluctance of most of the passengers to oppose the man is also quite revealing. I do not deny that over time as the situation unfolded a few more people joined in to help. But the fact is that it took a while for some kind of coordination to come about, and at the risk of repeating myself, only a few people eventually joined to help out, all while the train was full in capacity. This shows the effect that the system has on our moral courage. We see violence and injustice right in front of our eyes, but we are unwilling to do anything about it. We simply delegate or hope to delegate the task to others. As the philosopher Charles Taylor might put it, we do not see ourselves as socially embedded to the community. We’re self-interested, atomized, and ruggedly individualized. The notion of collective responsibility has been for the most part eviscerated. I suppose some passengers on the train may have refused to speak up because they thought the man might have a weapon. Perhaps a knife or a gun. Given his disproportional outrage to the situation, this line of thinking might seem reasonable. But what would have happened if no one had spoken up and the man would have continued his violence? The more people that speak up, the less probability there is of any serious violence taking place.