Tone Deafness in Appeals for Minor Social Change

The anti-manspreading campaign misses the point about public spaces.

There are appeals for great change, like reforming the role of police or shifting how we generate energy. And then there are appeals for minor change, like those seeking to combat men sitting on subways with their legs spread apart.

In both cases there is a certain need to make different appeals at different times. In broaching the issue generally it is alright to be more callous. To paint the offenders as inciters and troublemakers. But once the issue achieves broad awareness, it makes much more sense to change tacks.

Consider the manspread issue. Painted as one of male privilege—of men taking more than their fair share of public space on a crowded subway car. The suggestions don’t stop at merely folding the legs together, but appeals often go further, calling for men to stand up on trains.

The problem of comfort in public is an important one, but too often it is a zero-sum problem. Smokers got shoved out in the cold. Manspreaders take all the heat. The scapegoat gets punished, everyone else continues to march on in a suboptimal space putting up with a hundred other problems that haven’t risen to the level of minor outrage.

Point is, rather than scapegoating or inventing “As Seen on TV” gadgets for dealing with space issues on airplanes, the public should be demanding improved spaces (accepting that they may result in higher fiscal costs). Who wouldn’t want all airplanes to give more space? Or all subway cars? But who wants to pay more?

So the problem, at its heart, is not one of privilege or fairness. It’s one of frugality. We don’t want to pay more for the extra space. We want to pay less, generally. And so, we are offended by those who encroach on our already-skimped-upon space.

Let us then consider technological and economic solutions. For those offended by manspreaders, finding yourself next to a manspreader, would your opinion of the situation change if you knew the offender paid more for the seat for the privilege of manspreading? Or would that conspicuous consumption only make the situation worse? Would the manspreader now feel entitled to do the splits?

I’m not opposed to social etiquette or having men behave (along with everyone else) in public spaces. I’m not even very sure how seriously the anti-manspreading campaign is (but as it keeps coming up, I assume it is not in fact an instance of ongoing satire). But I am opposed to missing opportunities to improve public spaces to the detriment of everyone simply to make everyone equally uncomfortable.

What if the manspreader paid your fare on the subway? That is, if the manspreader paid double, and whoever sat next to him got their ride comped? Would that change the perception of manspreaders?

Again, the ideal solution is that public spaces become more accommodating to all comers (including breastfeeding women, people with children, people with pets, people who are having a bad day and would like not to put up with bullshit, etc.). Anti-manspreading seems to ignore that goal in favor of shaming people who feel more comfortable sitting with their legs apart. I think we can do better.


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