Several details of the Matt Gaetz story keep sticking in my head. But the one that sticks in it most is the report that the Florida Republican used to wander around and show his colleagues nude photos of people he had slept with.
There’s a kind of grim weirdness to the idea of these interactions (which Gaetz denies) — a very “I Read On eHow.com That Men Bond Over Conquests” bewilderment. The callousness and the violation involved are enough of a sock to the gut. But that this was allegedly known about him is what keeps getting to me. That this, or something in this neighborhood of bad, occasioned senior staff from then-House Speaker Paul Ryan’s office to have a talk with Gaetz about professional behavior.
Over all of this I keep hearing the uncomfortable laughter of Billy Bush. I keep coming back to the fact that it takes two to make a locker room.
I keep coming back to the detail in CNN’s report that this wasn’t something Gaetz did a single time, but repeatedly. Because if it happened more than once — if it happened twice, even — that is because the first time went better than it should have.
To me, this is something you do, ideally, zero times. You never experience the impulse to do it, and you lead a pleasant life. You travel. You eat lunchmeat sandwiches. Maybe you do a marathon, or climb something. You lead a blithe existence for many decades, you die in your bed in your mid-90s surrounded by your cherished relatives. And in all that time, you never walk up to a colleague on the floor of the House of Representatives and out of nowhere present him with a nude photograph of someone you claim to have had sex with.
But if you can’t do it zero times, then ideally it happens only once. It happens only once, because the moment you do it, the person you show it to responds the way a person should respond. You produce your photograph to your colleague, and your colleague looks at you and says, “Never show that to anyone, ever again. Go home and rethink your life. I do not feel closer to you. If anything, I want to have you removed forcibly from my presence by strong gentlemen whose biceps are tattooed with ‘MOM.’ That you thought this would make us closer makes me question every decision in my life that has led me to this point. Leave now and never come back.”
But we can probably suppose that this is not what happened, because life is regrettably unstingy with moments like this, when a small awkward “no” seems too costly. Perhaps the person to whom this was shown emitted a sort of uncomfortable, nervous laugh, and this was viewed as acceptance enough. Or worse, he leered at it, encouraged it. Or, still worse (a scenario alleged to have existed during Gaetz’s time in the Florida state House), he joined a fun little club with Gaetz and others to assign themselves conquest points.
The moments when people make up their secret minds about what is normal and what is acceptable are never big. They are always in private, when no one can see that you have failed the test, when all you were doing was trying to avoid any discomfort, be cool, play along. But there is a price. The price is that the Matt Gaetzes out there will leave the interaction thinking they have understood the world correctly. That what they are doing is working. That this is how the world is. But it is the accumulation of these little assents that make the world this way.
So I am not writing this for Gaetz. I am talking to the person who was on the receiving end. The person who was presented with this behavior and had a choice of how to respond. I am talking to the person without whose chuckle or back slap this situation would, perhaps, have been just a little less bad.
This is a plea for those small awkward no’s. The moment will inevitably come for you to offer one. And when I think of how much difference could be made by just one person, one guy in a locker room, or around a campfire, or even on the floor of Congress, saying, uncomfortably, “What?” or “Why would you show someone that?” — sometimes I want to chew glass. It is a small favor to ask. But it could reshape this whole place, if it happened enough.
Petri writes for The Washington Post: @petridishes. She is the daughter of former Wisconsin Congressman Tom Petri.