“Manspreading”, Broken Windows, and the Failure of Privilege Politics

If you’ve ridden the New York City subway recently, you’ve likely been confronted with a host of new, paternalistically worded signage.  An embodiment of the broken windows theory of policing that criminalizes small-scale misdemeanors with the ostensible goal of restoring order to a “city out of control“, these signs scold subway goers for infamous dance routines, primping, and, perhaps most notably, ‘manspreading.’  Most recently the banning of ‘manspreading’ has made news due to the arrest of two Latino men, “presumably because they were taking up more than one seat and therefore inconveniencing other riders.”

The MTA’s outlawing of ‘manspreading,’ is not exclusive to New York; other cities such as Philadelphia boast similarly worded signs all over their trains.  Yet this particular case is significant because it deploys the language of privilege politics so central to the identitarian Left in order to criminalize people for what has commonly been referred to by purveyors of so-called anti-oppressive politics as an undue expression of male privilege.

At the same time, it should come as no surprise that as ‘manspreading’ is being criminalized, elite New York City private schools have been lauded by mainstream outlets like The New York Times for implementing trainings and group discussions geared towards understanding white privilege.  According to the Times, educators “maintain that anti-racist thinking is a 21st-century skill and that social competency requires a sophisticated understanding of how race works in America.”  In other words, students who wish to get ahead need an understanding of privilege in order to succeed in a multicultural environment.

Yet however important discussing issues of privilege might be, the logic of privilege politics is also highly individualized and highly punitive.  Those who err in expressing their privilege in a range of ways deemed unacceptable are subject to being “called out,” stigmatized, or even banished from political communities.  Perhaps most common is the complaint that the privileged “take up too much space” through the expression of “male-ness,” “straightness,” “whiteness,” or what have you.  The subway signs castigating ‘manspreading’ seize upon this very discourse—one that frequently positions itself as opposed to police violence—to criminalize so-called male privilege.

Of course, such criminalization is also highly racialized: 86 percent of misdemeanor arrests made in 2014 involved people of color.  As a recent report issued by the Police Reform Organizing Project notes, moreover, the subway is prime real estate for police officers to enforce ‘broken windows’ “quality-of-life” stipulations.  People of color are routinely arrested for such minor offenses as placing one’s backpack on an empty adjacent seat, putting one’s feet up on a seat when no one else is around, and break dancing.  The MTA signs effectively repurpose the language of privilege politics to castigate the expression of Black and Brown subjectivity in public space, not unlike the common refrains from those on the Left mandating that the privileged “stop taking up space” by asserting themselves in politically unconscionable ways.

The point here is not that subway riders should disregard others’ personal space in trains that are often overcrowded and uncomfortable; however, it is worth paying attention to the ways in which the popular language used to pejoratively denote the expression of some presumptive form of privilege is so easily co-opted by state.  It should not come as a surprise that the MTA’s promotion of anti-‘manspreading’ posters coincides with the implementation of privilege-based discussions at NYC private schools, because privilege politics allows for the individualization of issues such as male privilege while ignoring how such logic fits into the racialized policing schemas so central to widespread criminalization and violence.

If the Left wants to truly challenge ‘broken windows’ policing, then it needs to move away from privilege politics and towards a class-based perspective that centers the lived realities of poor and working class people rather than criticizing them for embodying a given set of privileges.  While it may be important to identify expressions of privilege, the Left’s prescription must be systemic rather than individual.  This shift can only occur if we refocus our politics from the realm of identitarian abstraction to what’s happening on the ground in order to address the most concrete and immediate issues facing those most vulnerable to police violence (the #BlackLivesMatter movement thus far has been successful on this front). Many on the Left might recognize the criminalization of ‘manspreading’ as heinous, but unless people understand that such a symptom of broken windows fits neatly within the rubric of privilege politics, efforts to ameliorate this style of policing are doomed to fail.

Jacob Ertel recently graduated from Oberlin College, where he organized with Students for a Free Palestine and studied political economy. Jacob is currently based in New York City and is interested in the BDS movement, anti-gentrification, and internationalism. He has previously been published on Dissident Voice and Cyrano’s Journal. He can be contacted by email at: Jacob.L.Ertel@gmail.com</a. Read other articles by Jacob.