These days, I dread, under certain circumstances, getting into New York City taxis. Cultures around the world vary of course. (That should not be a taboo sentence.) And there are some cultures in this world which women have no voice at all, and are treated with complete disrespect. I don’t wish to name that culture, as generalizations can indeed be racist or xenophobic.
I’ve lived for two decades in New York City, and usually my interactions with cab drivers are lovely.
But the new reality is inescapable: more often than not, when the driver of the taxi to which I am now doomed, is from a part of the world where these particular misogynist cultures exist, and if the driver is a recently arrived immigrant and male, I know that I will have a miserable argument before I can arrive at my destination.
“Sir, you are heading North — we are going to Brooklyn, which is South.”
“Lady, I know what I am doing.” Spat out between gritted teeth.
“I don’t mean to offend you, but we need to turn left and go down Seventh Avenue — we have gone eight blocks North now, out of our way.”
“Why are you telling me how to drive my cab?!?” (Voice rising.)
“I’d like you to turn left please at the next possible left turn, and head down Seventh.”
“Do you think I am stupid? Do you think I don’t know the best way to go? Do you want to keep telling me how to do my job?!” (Shouting angrily, waves of neon-red hostility filling the cab).
By the time I get to my destination, I am a wreck. No matter how calm and polite I have remained, I have infuriated my driver merely by being a woman giving him directions. The fact is that in this particular culture, women are not, apparently, supposed to direct men — under any circumstances at all. So in the cab, when I am, inevitably, forced to give some direction or else be stuck with, variously, heading literally the wrong way, getting stuck in horrible Midtown traffic, or taking a huge costly detour, this act on my part, as courteously as I can achieve it, seems to have the effect of a red rag on a bull.
Men from this culture, at least in these situations, seem to experience a woman directing them as being horribly offensive, outrageous and demeaning. And frankly, the way they then feel comfortable treating me — a stranger, to whom they are not married or related, whose lot in life they do not direct in any way — feels to me, as a Western woman with a completely different set of expectations about the customer/cab driver relationship, bullying, and a bit threatening, and certainly degrading, and, overall, emotionally exhausting.
I hate, hate, hate my half hour of being a second-class citizen trapped in these drivers’ cabs. I hate being treated, for that short length of time, the way women are treated in the societies that produce the men who think these behaviors are fine. I can’t wait to get out and be a Western woman again, who can take for granted that she can give and receive information, from and to everyone around her, including from and to men, and be treated as a peer or as an equal.
That expectation I have — that I am a free person too, and that we need to treat each other, men and women both, with equal rights and respect — is a very dear and costly expectation. We did not arrive at it effortlessly, dating from the birth of our nation. The fight for women’s equality in the West has taken centuries; and it demanded wave upon wave of advocacy and activism, spanning generations.
It is an arduous achievement; a consensus, of a whole culture. It is a crown jewel of ours. Women in the past, in the West, could only dream about such a world, such a victory. Women around the world, who still live in nations like the ones that produce this situation I described, with cultures in which the men feel free to abuse any strange woman who is unlucky enough to get into their taxis, long for the rights and respect that they deserve — and that we Western women take for granted.
So — what is a culture? A culture is a set of complex agreements among millions of people, who are often united by national identity and set of moral beliefs.
Culture is fragile. It takes so much time, and agreement, and hard work.
A culture no trivial thing. Our culture — the culture of America, of North America, of the West — is no trivial thing.
The way we have been encouraged to think about culture — as always in need of “fixing” and updating; as chock-a-block with “micro-aggressions”; as if it is an old felt fedora moldering in the attic, in a moment when everyone is bareheaded and snapping selfies; as if it’s no more than an inconvenient aggregate of boring required reading, and of music that no one can quite remember, all written or composed by dead white men who exploited their slaves — all this discourse is intended, I believe, to mask a deeper truth; to hide from us a knowledge of deeper powers we have, that we are being encouraged to forget.
Western culture contains some of the greatest accomplishments of human beings ever; the greatest treasures; and these are treasures for all.
The simple expectation I described above — that women and men have the same rights and freedoms as one another — is one crucial example. So this expectation — that in America, women are equal in rights and respect to men — is at the heart of my social contract as an American.
It is not at the heart of my driver’s social contract.
Thus, there is an existential incompatibility there. If it is just one obnoxious cab driver, that incompatibility is not very ominous or meaningful. The role of legal immigration of the past — the kind of limited legal immigration that welcomed my Russian grandmother and grandfather; my Rumanian grandmother and grandfather; my Rumanian-born father; my German-born former father-in-law; my husband Brian’s Irish-born paternal grandmother and grandfather, his Czech-born maternal grandmother, his Ivory Coast-born maternal grandfather, and so on — was designed to absorb immigrants, with all of their cultural differences, and acclimate them — in ways that our nation could manage (and from which it could even benefit) — into our social contract and into our robust culture as Americans.
That is what used to be meant by the beautiful phrase, “We are a nation of immigrants.” We, legal immigrants, all came here to become Americans together — meaning, to participate in this best of all social contracts, that involved equality of opportunity, freedom, a certain history, a rule of law, and a certain set of governance processes and founding documents.
But a culture requires some consensus and shared language, values, and beliefs, in order to hold together.
That is why we have naturalization processes, that teach legal immigrants about our culture and democratic systems, and that is why we used to have Civics classes.
We were teaching students from all over, what America was and meant.
That acculturation is why in Israel, new immigrants are given free intensive Hebrew lessons called ulpanim. That is why in Norway, as I was told by my hosts when I was there on a speaking tour, that new immigrants from cultures that torture or imprison male homosexuals, have to be taught in classes, that in Norway, the cultural contract is that male homosexuality is legal.
Here is another example of a Western cultural expectation: that one is quiet when sharing the experience of the wilderness, or libraries, or public transportation. There are a lot of interesting reasons that, when you go to a national or state park or beach or hiking trail, a wilderness area, or get on a bus or train, the US social norm (sometimes protected by signs) is that we try to maintain a certain level of quiet. This tradition probably goes back to the values of the Transcendentalist movement of the 1840’s (this movement manifested in Britain as well, a bit earlier, under the name of Romanticism, or in the pursuit of “the Sublime”).
In this influential movement, ordinary British or American men and women were understood be able to encounter a greater sense of connection to the Creator, to their own higher selves, and to existential truths, in the presence of unspoiled wilderness, or books, or art.
Transcendentalism, and the pursuit of the Sublime, are also predicated upon another critical Western value — that of individual “sensibility” or private consciousness. From these influences, we probably derive the practice of not bothering other people too much who are gazing at a sunset or having a quiet picnic in a wilderness area, or reading a book on a train.
We have been taught that we have individual private thoughts, and that they are important, so we don’t want to intrude on others’ important private thoughts.