Learning to act right (11)… No molestar
June 23, 2010
(= Do Not Disturb - Spanish sign for hotel room doors)In the borderlands
This is not a hotel story, yet the false friend offered by the sign is topical. It's an ethical decision making story which involves a failed defence with no negative after effects, except being reminded how threatened I can be by implicit violence. Why does this matter? What's the point, as Charles asked about an early draft?
The point has to do with situations in which the point is not at all clear but seems demanding to be clarified in an unavoidable way. There are life circumstances where correct perception of danger is the most important thing to have. Without the perception, correct action cannot be taken, or is likely to be compromised by the delay to ponder the facts. Trouble is, we can't always or reliably tell what's dangerous and what not in the facts. The following example is one of such. Our times are riven with them. These are the borderlands.
They are also relativity heaven, where judging the intent of others does not easily resolve itself into objectivity. Hence the detail in what follows! Its objectivity was hard to bring clearly into view. The flush of demanding factors in the process was almost overwhelming – in fact, to some extent I can now see that the whole event can be interpreted as an attempt not to fall into overwhelm …into that state where no action is as likely to arise as some action, right or not!! That's sometimes a very bad thing.
Wandering down The Ramblas in Barcelona at any time of day may be a challenging task moderated by the endless varieties of humanity surging around, even in the rain, as that day. A known but unidentifiable danger lurks thereon – the local pickpockets. I know they are there and carry my wallet in my left front pocket, my gold pen out of sight and camera in a backpack.
I once was the subject of a similar attempt in the Paris Metro about 8 years ago, with a similar outcome to this story, but much less explicit confrontation. So, there was nil subsequent hyper-vigilance or feeling of powerlessness. In the streets of Melbourne a related incident occurred four years ago across from the Telstra offices and just down the street from the site of "Doing little goods badly" a month ago. This was a case of beggar thuggery, or thug beggary as it turned out. A handout seeking hand protruded from a well-coated and trim bearded guy who said, "Why don't you look at me when I speak to you?" and followed up with, "Next time I see you maybe I'll take your wallet off you" (confirming the implicit threat of his initial question). That one populated a terror spot in me for a few weeks. Charles also pointed out that the underlying personal dynamic of this post and the one linked above is similar!
What follows is subject to all the distortion factors you can imagine, but, as elsewhere, it's the only evidence I've got*. The whole incident took 20 or 30 seconds I guess. It had been raining on and off that morning (we'd just gotten in from Bilbao), so I was carrying a tightly closed folding umbrella in my right hand by its crooked handle. My left hand was free and I had a small, lightweight, but heavy-duty backpack on.
At about this spot a guy around 30 drew along from behind my right shoulder waving a menu sheet about two feet in front of my face. Jane and I had been walking along for about 15 minutes by that time. We had just finished a very pleasant seafood lunch at the Boqueria Mercato with power assist from a bottle of rosé. He asked if we wanted to try something at one of the Ramblas restaurants. I walked on, maybe saying 'no', maybe just dismissing him with disregard, or some of both.
Upping the ante
He continued with the sheet and drew closer, touching my right shoulder with his left and starting to talk about learning the tango. The tango talk was punctuated by swings of his left foot across my right as we walked, each time trying to get further around my foot with a swing recognisably tangoesque if you've seen enough movies. It was certainly the first time I'd felt the fine fit of the swung foot to the other's steps, and the potential for a misstep to be a trip.
About the third swing I was feeling invaded! I can't pick what switched my attention from patientputtingup to impatient suspicion and irritation. I stopped and turned with the rolled umbrella in a useful though not threatening position, unless you know that a stab is better than a whack for defence. Almost at the same time, I was aware that his hand was on my right rear pocket (which had nothing but a handkerchief in it) and I faced him saying "get your hand out of my pocket." He denied having it there and threw an offended / angry look along with the denial, but also started backing off, and by the time I was fully turned he was jogging slightly away. He was about 180 cm, medium build, shortish black hair and cold eyed. I cannot reliably recall the guy's face, though I have a sense of classically attractive Spanish male.
We continued along the same path to the end of the Ramblas at the start of the harbour, paused for a few moments reflecting on the event, and decided to go back the way we came. I was in mild shock…a slight sense of damage with steady apprehension that he would reappear and there was nothing I could do but be vigilant; hence, hyper-vigilance set in and lasted for an hour or so.
My state of vigilance had been reasonably high all the time we were in the street, but not high enough to pick a set up in the making. I didn't react immediately to his invasion of my visual space with the menu sheet. Why not?
Two reasons come to mind. One, I didn't assume he was anything other than a restaurant spruiker (though that is not a common practice on The Ramblas), and two, I'm a small town kid with an innate first assumption face-to-face of benign intent in others (the underlying vigilance came from the published fact of pickpocket presence there). Of course there's the rosé effect, too. So, I didn't push him away, turn to face him or do other distancing things because they would have broken the first assumption. Even when he crowded my visual and then physical space, the first rule continued in force.
About now you might be noticing that this rule suite is also a rationale for an intrinsic passivity, or a conflict avoidant attitude. This is an underlying factor for me, but if it were not I'd still face an ethical dilemma something like this. His activities could all be explained, and so deflected, by a story about his spruiking role: need for employment, presently stressed financial straits and sick child….etc. And this would contextualise his invading my space from his viewpoint, and partly mine, too. I unconsciously provided that story, just as I have fabricated it now here. It's the story of a recognisable life role of low threat, but some invasiveness.
But, to explore the perceived invasion would have deepened a relationship I did not want to have at that time. It was not a casual encounter of the daily sort (a light acknowledgment of others in passing transactions – buying newspapers, croissants, coffee; or, managing passage in crowded streets: who goes first at the lights, which side of the pathway to tend towards, etc.) which arise and flow away briskly with a slight lift in general interest and affect, but no continuing commitment. Spruiking implies a potential commitment which is about to be negotiated. I did not even want that amount of engagement.
He knew, and I do too, that an initial response to another can be modified by expression of real intent. So, good spruikers are good at persisting up to the point of irritation, of explicit rejection. And, we both know that as a generalised social expectation. This makes both of us responsible for maintaining the appropriate distance…but, that but again, the responsibility is not symmetrical. The spruiker has more responsibility than I do (than one has!), and here comes the potential conflict.
To question a spruiker's expression of his/her intent is to implicitly question their conduct, to challenge it and potentially to reject it. The likelihood of an inquiry becoming a challenge increases when both parties are under pressure. For me this prospect reduces my capacity to defend against the unwanted, while not reducing the perceived invasion. An eventual query then tends to be over-expressed as the unexpressed offense gathers energy under my repression.
The underlying dynamic crosses many kinds of public (and presumably private) relationships, sharing the platform of perceived powerlessness, which can be as strong with the destitute (beggars, needy, homeless, temporarily down) as with the destroyers (thugs of various sorts). The ethical challenge is to act out of powerlessness usefully. Understanding my powerlessness is a starting place. The epistemological challenge is to understand something both ephemeral and terrifying – my powerlessness. There is no refuge from being disturbed by life.
*In fact, there were two guys in the restaurant pictured who I noticed noticing the latter stages of this brief incident. Of course, my noticing them noticing is also suspect... and so it goes. I think they were still seated there when we walked back along the same path five minutes later.