On Friday I attended a fancy supper club dinner hosted by my friend Laurent. It was decadent food paired with interesting people, the sort of combination that is the making of new friendships or a silly plot device for a rom-com.
The mixed company was particularly mixed too: there were queer food writers, Midwest travelers in town for vacation, a couple of Asian couples, and a French mother/daughter pair. There was also an older woman who was flying solo attached to the mother/daughter pair. She stood out. She was very nice and a Los Angeles local but she had a strange set of observations to add to the dinner. When one of the couples took a photo she turned to comment, “They take photos of everything.” They? Yes, the couples were Asian but that couldn’t have been what she meant by they. Then, as the cheese course arrived to round out the feast, she clarified the they.
“Asians are picky eaters,” she smiled. “I’m surprised so many are getting cheese.”
I pretended not to hear. I’m not sure who she was saying that to or who else heard but the not-so-subtle racism fueled by wine or xenophobia popped up, the kind of behind-closed-door banter white people do when they think they are only with other white people. I am ashamed to say I did not correct her. I was a seat removed and not “in the conversation” but I heard it and was too grossed out to call attention to it as an otherwise nice dinner party with strangers would have switched into political policing.
But that’s just it: I should have said something. This happens a lot and isn’t entirely unique: we’ve all been this Amoral Wingman. We’ve stood by as ugliness happens, as someone blasphemes and you are on the assist because you didn’t call correction. When someone misgenders a queer celebrity or assumes something about a friend’s sexuality, when someone says something vaguely or overtly sexist or racist, and you say nothing—that is The Amoral Wingman. That is playing into a narrative of societal oppression by doing nothing about it. It isn’t a unique problem but it is nevertheless a problem.
This year, this election, has really made The Amoral Wingman more than an outlier. This year, we all have been called in to see this person is, to see that he is wrong, and that we cannot be him. It is a call to action. Case in point: Billy Bush and the so-called “locker room talk” that allows men to say things sexually explicit about women. Every man—gay or straight, cis or trans—who has been in the company of other men know this talk well. It might not always happen in a locker room but it happens. It’s not always as assaulting or suggestive as Trump talks but it happens. Most men turn away from it, denying participation as the manliest of them cackle around pussy talk, asserting their sex and sexuality above everyone else. The talk suppresses anyone else’s opinion or thoughts. The silence becomes The Amoral Wingman.
Billy Bush is the literal manifestation of The Amoral Wingman. He goes above and beyond the role, cajoling and calling for more from Trump. He begs for this behavior, in a sense. The Amoral Wingman is typically silent but, regardless of how they standby such talk, you might as well be talking as foul as Bush: it’s the same difference.
This is the subject of many debates now surrounding the fall out of the Trump tapes. Lindy West in the New York Times explains that these Wingmans are “spineless,” that you can “feel Mr. Bush’s giddiness, a contact high, at getting to join a more powerful man in the oldest and most sacred of male bonding exercises: objectifying women.” She points toward something very pressing in this, something expanding like a shallow galaxy to gather us all up: “Most of you are no better than Mr. Trump; you are just more subtle.” Ouch. But true.
Shaun Harper explains similarly for The Washington Post, that this problem can only be stopped by those who are the same. In this case, men are to be charged with checking other men: “When men fail to challenge other men on troubling things they say about and do to women, we contribute to cultures that excuse sexual harassment, assault and other forms of gender violence.”
Harper points toward a need to “affirm masculinities” as the reason why men talk like this but this could be extended to so much more: it can assert gender when transphobia occurs, it can assert heterosexuality when queer-phobia occurs, or it can assert whiteness when racism occurs. It all gets at a privilege, at a means to hold your hand higher than those who are others. The Amoral Wingman stands by idly as this happens, helping to widen the divide by doing nothing else but witnessing.
The conclusion here is Harper’s conclusion.
I understand now, more than ever before, that letting them talk this way about women makes me just as sexist. By excusing their words and actions, I share some responsibility for rape, marital infidelity and other awful things that men do. I want other men to recognize this, too — not only because they have mothers, wives, sisters, aunts or daughters – but because sexism hurts all women and men in our society.
And that is it: The Amoral Wingman does so much by doing so little, if anything. They are just as culpable. The Amoral Wingman could have stopped the madness but instead indulged it.
Yet, the antics of The Amoral Wingman isn’t just about policing: it’s about education and equality and, above all, respect. When we standby, witnessing other people’s poor behavior without reproach, we open The Great White Room to something much uglier. We allow the stains of privilege to fan further on the fabric of society.