Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Changing the Rules

I picked up a book off the sidewalk the other day called The First Stone, by Helen Garner.  The book tells a fictionalized version of a story that made news in Australia in the early 1990s.  Two women accused a university official of sexual harassment.  The man was accused of repeatedly groping a female student's breast while dancing with her, and of propositioning another woman (a student or former student, it's a little hard to tell), as well as groping her breast.  Both alleged incidents occurred at the same party, which took place at the college and was attended by both students and faculty.  The first alleged incident occurred on the dance floor, in a public area.  The second alleged incident occurred in his office, allegedly behind locked doors.  (Bear in mind, my only knowledge of the incidents comes through the book, and I can't be sure which aspects were fictionalized.)

I haven't finished the book, but I have a pretty clear idea where it is headed:  the author basically thinks that the women should never have gone to the police, but rather should have toughened up.  Perhaps they were entitled to an apology, but it was totally out of proportion to get the legal authorities involved.

The book was written in 1995, and obviously attitudes have changed a lot since then.  It seems to me that there is an issue of fairness any time there is a sharp change in social expectations (although in this case the man's conduct, if the allegations are true, was bad enough that I don't think the unfairness perceived by Garner was very severe).  So for instance, it's shocking when reading Robert Caro's books to see him use the word "Negro," which he does throughout at least one of his books on Lyndon Johnson (The Years of Lyndon Johnson:  The Path to Power).  I believe that book was published in 1982, presumably at a time when the term "Negro" was used much more widely, and with no intent to give offense.  (As evidence that the word was once widely acceptable, consider the name of the United Negro College Fund, an organization devoted to the welfare of black people.)

Now of course Caro would never use the word "Negro" today, except in a quotation of someone else.  But there must have been a transitional period during which people like Caro might be caught using the term when it was already considered unacceptable by some significant segment of the population.  And I think it would be legitimately unfair to treat it as an indictment of Caro's character, because there is no indication that Caro ever intended to give offense.  But of course, once the new rule is firmly in place, and after people have had some time to learn of it, then people have to conform themselves to the new standard, or they will rightly be seen as assholes.  (Just to be clear, I'm unaware that anyone ever criticized Caro for using the term.  It just seems like a risk that he was running by writing the way he did in the 1980s.)

This reminds me of the doomsday machine in Dr. Strangelove, which is designed to destroy all life on Earth if a nuclear strike is carried out on the Soviet Union.  As Dr. Strangelove explains, the machine only works if you tell people about it!  (Which the Soviets failed to do until it was too late.)

The same goes for social norms.  If you want to stigmatize behavior that was previously considered acceptable, then you are effectively setting up a mini-doomsday machine.  In fairness to its potential victims, the new rules should be clearly communicated.  But of course, in real life the new rules can't just be "communicated," because in fact they are hotly contested, and they are usually not formally adopted by an authoritative body but rather slowly accepted by a growing segment of the population.  So there is a real issue of fairness during the transitional period, especially in a culturally fragmented, decentralized society.  Some of the "resisters" will not be merely ignorant of the new standards, but will be actual participants in a culture war, which complicates the fairness determination.

Now, as I said, I think the behavior sparking the drama in The First Stone doesn't strike me as a good example of what I am describing.  When was it ever okay to grope a woman's breast absent permission or at least some indication that it would be welcome?  Maybe I'm unable to imagine it because the world has changed dramatically in the last 20-25 years.  I don't know.  (Bear in mind these people weren't, like, on a date.  I can imagine cases in which it might seem that a caress is welcome when it turns out not to be, and no one is really to blame.  That's a separate battle being fought right now, I believe, in the form of "affirmative consent."  But that's not what was at stake in The First Stone.)

My real concern is not with the events in the book, but with romantic relations today.  In addition to the fairness issue mentioned above, I think there is also a legitimate question about whether the "new rules" are fair or wise.  It should be remembered that reducing discomfort for one segment of the population may impose burdens on other segments of the population.  A lot of the "low-hanging fruit," by which I mean social norms that have out-sized benefits relative to their costs, have already been achieved.  Certainly today any man who gropes a woman's breast out of the blue must realize that he is taking on significant risk if the action is unwelcome—essentially, if the woman complains, then he is toast, and rightly so.  (Note, I am assuming the facts are uncontested.  A man shouldn't be toast merely because he is alleged to have groped a breast.  That is a question about establishing the facts, and we should account for the possibility of false allegations.)

But many of the contested issues today are far more nuanced.  Take, for example, the proposition that men shouldn't flirt with women in gyms.  The main beneficiaries of this rule would be women who are made uncomfortable by men hitting on them in the gym.  As a secondary matter, men who are relatively bad at hitting on women in gyms might benefit because they won't have to compete with men who are good at it.  The main losers are women who want to be flirted with in gyms, and men who want to flirt with women in gyms.

So how do we weight these things?  If we treat female discomfort as the most important consideration, then the rule will seem like a relatively good idea.  It seems to me that this is a common approach today.  Women simply shouldn't be subjected to discomfort as a result of men's behavior.  But I wonder if this approach is really sensible.  Momentary discomfort is not necessarily worse than the steady elimination of venues for romantic pairing.

Possibly what we have is a situation much like interest-group politics, in which women who dislike a particular form of flirtation are vocal and motivated, while women who generally prefer to be flirted with are unmotivated to get involved in any particular dispute.  We also live in a culture in which victimhood is given special status, but certain kinds of victimhood (like never receiving any romantic interest from men) are not recognized as valid.

Now I'll admit that one solution to all of this is to adopt social norms making it flatly unacceptable to communicate romantic interest to anyone except through particular internet sites and mobile apps.  This is a neat solution in the sense that it's generally very easy to modulate your own participation in those platforms.  There doesn't need to be any ambiguity about who welcomes what kind of attention.  (Of course that kind of attention may be unpleasant for some women, but maybe there could be some way to filter messages so that unwelcome advances, like uninvited dick pics or whatever, are excluded.  For women who don't like electronic communication at all...  well, that's pretty much untenable in the modern world.)

But this imposes its own kind of poverty on the world.  Couples would no longer meet serendipitously or through shared interests (except to the extent those function as categories on dating apps).  I mean, it would happen occasionally, as a kind of tacitly tolerated violation of the rules.  But in terms of numbers, the "liquidity" would all move to the internet.  To some degree this is already happening, and maybe this represents progress.  I have to admit I find it to be an unsatisfying solution, but then, I'm a dinosaur when it comes to these things.

This blog post is brought to you by my splitting headache and need to procrastinate.


Post a Comment

<< Home