To say that Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump has lowered the bar is to engage with the obvious. Since his first words on Mexican immigration, a speech that would have sent any other politician into self-imposed exile, the New York real estate baron has sunk lower and lower in his quest to subvert decency and democracy. In his recent conflation of sexual abuse with the braggadocio of sexual achievement, Mr. Trump has once again dragged down the measure of central tendency for all men. Many of us can now rest on a throne of our own mediocre laurels, knowing that we are three standard deviations removed from the likes of Donald J. Trump.
I took to Twitter to set the record straight on my experiences with locker room talk. This led to a series of memories on pop culture debates and my ongoing efforts to pass as someone who cares about sports. As the likes and retweets rolled in, I sat secure in the knowledge that I was righteous. Are you not entertained? Also, am I not a good person?
There’s no answering the latter without talking about a time when locker room talk wasn’t banal and safe. I’m hard pressed to excessively excoriate the short and portly 13 year-old version of myself who witnessed these events in silence. Yet as a man a few days past his 35th birthday, I think the time has come to honestly reflect on this particular history lesson.
In the fall of 1995 I was in the ninth grade, and the seventh period of every day, for the entire school year, was the bane of my freshman life: gym class. The mandatory nature of ninth grade physical education produced a cross section of social cliques and identities in matching shorts and school t-shirts. Would-be athletes formed an entente cordiale with the bookish as both were surrounded by stoners, semi-literates, the willfully ignorant, and the odd sociopath.
One such union of ignorance and monstrousness came in the form of a boy called Kenny. Kenny revelled in puffing out his chest at the expense of others. He would act as the “as seen on TV” upperclassman, doling out ritual hazing and emotional torments as an arbiter of broader social inclusion. It should also surprise no one at all to learn that Kenny was a loud mouth about his particular brand of Christianity. “Judge not lest ye be judged,” did not apply to the gospel according to Kenny. In sum, he was the kind of kid who you hoped would never find more authority in his adult life than that which is conferred upon a used car salesman.
Kenny’s victim of choice was a boy called Farrokh. Farrokh was of Iranian background, rail-thin, terrible at sports, spoke with a lisp, and was neither bookish nor in possession of a razor-sharp wit. Any one of those things might have offered him a shield against Kenny. Farrokh sealed his fate on the day he announced, before the entire locker room, that he adored Michael Jackson. This was 1995; Jackson’s then place in the public eye had more to do with child sex abuse scandals than music. One can imagine the ammunition Farrokh’s statement offered a low-life like Kenny.
Since our phys-ed teacher demanded a culture of mutual respect in his class, Kenny was limited to hit-and-run tactics. The only time he could deliver a consistent assault against Farrokh was if they both happened to be on the far side of the track we ran on a daily basis. From inside his office, adjacent to the locker room, our teacher heard all that happened after class. Like a UN Peacekeeper, his very presence dissuaded bad behavior. Then came the week he was sick, and my school’s other gym teacher took over the class.
This was a man of the old guard: Theodore Roosevelt to our usual Jimmy Carter. Feelings were for girls. Empathy was for the weak. Life was football, and if we had a problem with that, we were loudly and publically invited to unbind our panties from around our balls and act like men. This was Monday.
On Tuesday, in the unsupervised locker room, Kenny attacked. His opening salvo rings as clear today as it did then.
“Farookh, you’re a real f****t, aren’t you? You know what they did to f****ts in the bible? They stoned them.”
The more Farookh demanded Kenny leave him alone, the more Kenny pressed. Kenny was smart enough to know not to hit Farookh, but that didn’t stop him from spewing the kind of hateful venom that would make the average social media troll blush.
Everyone in the locker room, even Kenny’s bullying entourage, stood silent on this day. I remember hating what I was seeing. I also knew that if I spoke up, I’d be making a target of myself. There was no culture of tolerance, no sympathy for difference, no notion of compassion, in my very white, very suburban, high school.
Twenty years later, in a world that is supposed to be better than the one I grew up in, and people are still waving away “locker room talk” or rationalizing it with a writ of “boys being boys.” I’ve always believed that as a civilization we were moving in the right direction, recognizing there was still much to be done. Now I ponder how many Kennys in the English speaking world look at Trump and see the avatar for their prejudices? A man who brushes away shared morality and social obligation under the auspices of aristocratic indifference. How many more people look at his fanatic legions, wondering if this is the way the world ends? Silence and inaction once led me to carry two decades of guilt and shame. I do not make such mistakes twice.
To that end, I’ll say it is too tempting and too easy to claim a moral high ground because one isn’t the shambling monument to moral relativism that is Donald J. Trump. Donald Trump makes many a sub-par person seem good by contrast. Under his banner of making America great, Trump invites regular folk to share in his misogyny, racism, transphobia, and other assorted vices promoted as virtues. There is no nobility in refusing to jump on his bandwagon. There’s no praise to be found in declining an invitation to being a monster. To paraphrase Chris Rock, you’re not supposed to do that, dummy.
So long as Trump can effortlessly lead his followers down a path of turning people into “Others,” the rest of us have a moral obligation to speak up, not simply to snark. The gesture is small. Indeed, an individual voice of condemnation might feel impotent against the frothing anger of millions, but silence, or worse, smugness, risks eroding our collective moral compass.
We are capable of so much better than the likes of Donald J. Trump. And to that end, we must do more to engage the better angels of our humanity at a time when one man would have us forget they exist. Because it is never just locker room talk. Locker room talk is the first few degrees on the long arc back to a time when laissez-faire cruelty, victim blaming, and profiting from injustice were the highest of male virtues. We must be better than that.
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