When I found myself on a bicycle trip through Italy with my mom (about which I wrote last week, the last thing I thought I’d be doing was discussing the basics of feminism over dinner with an eclectic bunch of strangers. But there I was, at a little pizzeria just off the main square of the fascinating Baroque town of Lecce, debating, discussing, and explaining the social construction of gender norms, structural injustice, affirmative action, #MeToo, and consent, with a rather unlikely audience.
As I wrote last week, I’m new to biking and to biking culture. I’ve never been on an organized trip of this sort, I’ve never biked long distances (alone or with others), so I’m not sure what it does to people and how (and whether) it can transform them. When a bunch of random people who haven’t chosen to be together are thrown together, does this make them more open to ideas that they’ve never encountered? Are people less closed and closed minded when they’re biking with strangers of different stripes?
Probably not, but the following events have at least compelled me to ask such questions.
(Image description: Baroque cathedral in Lecce)
On every night of the trip but one, there was an organized dinner where all fourteen participants ate together. On the one night where we were on our own, I found myself at dinner with my mother, a 71-year-old spitfire feminist lawyer, a retired successful businessman, his son (who’s my age), and our southern Italian bike guide.
Typically, I don’t socialize with businessmen (or women, for that matter). We just don’t run in the same circles. But during this trip, on several short rides, I found myself biking alongside the businessman. Attempting to make conversation, I asked him why very wealthy, successful business people keep doing business and making more money, even when they probably already have more money than they could ever spend.
He tried to explain it to me. I didn’t really get it. He joked with me about being a philosophy professor who teaches ethics. We implicitly agreed that we just aren’t interested in the same things.
(Image description: ancient ruins found underneath main square in Lecce)
But at dinner that night, he asked me what I do. And he was interested in hearing more than the 30-second stock answer. So I told him. I talked a bit about a book I’m writing (on microaggressions and medicine) and about some of the classes I teach (feminist philosophy, medical ethics).
Surprisingly, the feminism part piqued his interest.
His questions kept coming; they were genuine. “Why focus on women?” “Can’t we just have ‘humanism’”? “Why affirmative action? “Is it wrong to just hire the ‘best candidate’?” And many other standard objections that arise when people are first exposed to such ideas.
I’ve been having conversations of this sort long enough to be able to distinguish between two different types of interlocutors: those who’ve made up their minds about what they think before the conversation begins, who push on only to have more ways to disagree with you, and who who just get a kick out of getting you riled up; and those who ask questions because they really want to learn about ideas that are different from their own. Though up until that point I would have pegged him for the former, during our conversation, it became very clear to me that he was the latter.
Had he been the former, I would have quickly and politely ended the conversation. It’s too easy to make yourself vulnerable and to get too invested in an argument, only to continually run up against a cement wall. But as the conversation drew on, it became clear that he really wanted to understand how gender is socially constructed, what the implications of that are, and why the claim “but I just worry that my 6 year-old-grandson, because he’s male, will have it so much more difficult than his twin sister” is problematic and misguided.
Everyone at the table was chiming in. The scope of our discussion expended. We talked about cultural differences regarding conversational norms and touching (in Italy, in Germany, in the United States), and why it’s dangerous to just assume that everyone wants to be hugged and that hugging is always a benign gesture.
After several hours, the pizza got cold, the wine (for those of us drinking it) had dried up, our muscles were tired from the day’s biking, and we realized that we needed to get up early to peddle away for another day. The dinner was lovely; the conversation was heated, but not aggressive. We all agreed that we’d enjoyed the evening and we walked back to the hotel together.
Over the next two days I thought a bit about how unexpected it was to have such an animated, extensive, genuine, and lovely conversation with such an unlikely interlocutor. He’s a thoughtful guy and we sure had plenty of hours left on our trip to do some good thinking on our bikes. I assumed he was thinking about some of what we’d said, I hoped so, but I didn’t really know.
During some of the subsequent social interactions with those who were out for dinner that night, we joked around about touching, hugging, and consent, but not in a way that ridiculed these issues. On the contrary, the jokes were sincere and well-intended attempts to go over some of the conceptual terrain that we covered that night. It felt to me that I’d gotten some ideas across and people were working them out for themselves.
Then we biked some more.
(Image description: author and her mother in the close by town of Alberobello)
But it wasn’t until our dinner on the last night that I realized what a difference our conversation had had. The entire group plus our two guides were seated at two long tables. I was sitting next to the businessman, now friend, who was positioned at the head of the table. We were chatting and he mentioned that we should thank our guides for a wonderful week. I agreed. I assumed he would take the lead on this. He’s a good public speaker and would have done a great job.
But he pulled me aside and said, “But you know, I’m a man, and most of the people on this trip are women. And you know, I wouldn’t want to just speak for them. I don’t really feel right speaking on behalf of everyone. You should do it.”
I looked at him, astonished. Proud.
I thought to myself, “Wow, I came here to bike. Not really to make friends. Not to convert wealthy businessmen to feminists.” What he said was on the one hand, a tiny gesture; but on the other hand, indicative of careful self-reflection and mindfulness of the impact of our small actions, like speaking for others.
Do I think people really change their minds and beliefs on the basis of one conversation in a small Italian town over delicious pizza? Definitely not. Will I ever see this person again, let alone become friends them? Probably not.
But this experience made ponder how intense biking, when are aren’t immersed in the habits of our daily routines, might make us reconsider our long-held beliefs, and maybe even change our minds.
Not only can a biking trip change one’s attitude or expose one to foreign ideas, but I’m coming to see that it can also reestablish faith in the openness and receptivity of other.