Pur Autre Vie

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

Saturday, October 31, 2015

The First Stone and the Futility of Debate

A little while ago I wrote a post about The First Stone, by Helen Garner.  I've now finished the book, and I have to say that it's basically a train wreck.  The book starts by describing two incidents that allegedly happened on a college campus during a party, which was attended by students and faculty.  (This happened at a British-style "residential" college in Melbourne, Australia, and I honestly don't know what that means in terms of social structure.  However, the man alleged to have harassed the women was clearly a figure of authority.)  What he is alleged to have done is (1) squeeze one woman's breast multiple times, in an unwelcome way, while dancing with her at the party, and (2) invite the other woman to his office, lock the door, and suggest sexual intercourse.  The man denied the allegations, and the women ultimately brought criminal charges.  He was not convicted on either charge, but he lost his job at the college.

Garner spoke several times with the man, his family, and his other defenders.  She never spoke with the accusers (and didn't speak much with their supporters), but this was not for lack of trying.  A theme running through the book is that Garner just can't get access to the women to get their side of the story.  This is a constant source of frustration and bafflement to Garner.  But to her credit, she actually explains why this happened right at the front of the book.  Immediately upon learning of the criminal charges, she sat down and wrote this to the accused:

Dear Dr Shepherd [this was the pseudonym that she used for the accused man],
I read in today's paper about your troubles and I'm writing to say how upset I am and how terribly sorry about what has happened to you.  I don't know you, or the young woman; I've heard no rumours and I have no line to run.  What I want to say is that it's heartbreaking, for a feminist of nearly fifty like me, to see our ideals of so many years distorted into this ghastly punitiveness.  I expect I will never know what 'really happened', but I certainly know that if there was an incident, as alleged, this has been the most appallingly destructive, priggish and pitiless way of dealing with it.  I want you to know that there are plenty of women out here who step back in dismay from the kind of treatment you have received, and who still hope that men and women, for all our foolishness and mistakes, can behave towards each other with kindness rather than being engaged in this kind of warfare...
"Dr Shepherd" or one of his supporters photocopied the letter and distributed it widely, so that his accusers and their supporters all saw copies of it.  So then, imagine why they might not speak to this woman!  She has announced, essentially in public, that she thinks that whatever the truth of the allegations, they are prigs who are engaging in ghastly punitiveness.

The whole book is essentially propaganda.  We have on the one hand bluff, honest, down-to-earth people who say that this was certainly not gentlemanly behavior, but the women never should have gone to the police, and then on the other hand we have vindictive, incoherent feminists who come right out and say that it's good to punish the accused man regardless of the truth of the allegations, as a way of sending a message to the real misogynists out there.

The book definitely makes me pessimistic that these issues can ever be discussed in a way that is remotely rational or constructive.  In a way, Garner's book is very honest.  She openly admits sending the letter quoted above, and she acknowledges that her opinion may stem from her own psychological idiosyncrasies.  So if anything she is more honest than the typical propagandist, but of course that doesn't salvage the book.  I don't know.  Very sad!


Blogger Zed said...

I have very mixed feelings about this issue because I take the "civilized" view of punishment seriously. On the one hand it is imperative that people realize they cannot get away with harassment. On the other, for almost every other serious crime we believe that enormous penalties meted out randomly with small probability are extremely ineffectual deterrents. (Not to get to the transition-period-ambiguity issues you raised in a previous post.) It seems likely that the right equilibrium is for harassment to be punished with minor, though still meaningful, penalties that are not so severe as to deter cases from being brought. We are currently in the opposite, bad, equilibrium where the punishments are enormous and this deters students from bringing up cases and admin from pursuing them except under unusual circumstances.

9:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

(This is James.)

Right, I mean, I think you could contrast it with racism, which we hope to eliminate entirely eventually. The sexual harassers, on the other hand, we will always have with us. This is because sexual harassment is a label applied to an area of human behavior that borders on acceptable behavior, and because we are constantly pushed toward the boundary by our desires. That is never going to stop. We hope that's not true of racism.

The reason I bring this up is, if an authority figure in a university does something truly racist, it's going to be very hard to impose a light punishment and move on. This is because the authority figure has revealed his type in a way that makes it impossible to trust him in the future. So even if the stakes are low, we're tempted to react with strong measures.

And maybe this kind of zero tolerance policy doesn't make sense for the gray areas of sexual harassment. (The non-gray areas, like demanding sex in return for good grades, are of course to be punished severely, probably with immediate dismissal once the charges are proved.)

But I'm not sure what the enforcement model is here. In the McGinn case, the plaintiff wasn't going to go to the authorities while she still believed McGinn was "on her side" in terms of advancing her career. And that would be true even if the result would just be a slap on the wrist. Even that level of punishment would surely alienate him. So she probably would have gone to the authorities at about the time she did, and at that point a slap on the wrist doesn't seem sufficient (assuming her allegations to be true).

Maybe the McGinn case is a particularly difficult one. Maybe the more typical case is a TA who repeatedly asks a student to go on a date. She complains, he gets taken aside, lectured to, and docked a week's pay or something, and the student can switch sections if she wants. Then everyone moves on. I agree that would be better than waiting for things to come to a head and then destroying the guy's career.

The difficult thing, I think, politically, is that this would involve an admission that we are going to tolerate some level of harassment. And that's anathema to a lot of feminists. And here maybe Garner has a point, broadly, about what people can be asked to put up with. I'd say groping breasts is way over the line, but a few requests to go on a date or something... maybe not the end of the world. But of course, I've never been on the other end of that kind of encounter.

1:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It isn’t just a few requests. And, it won’t ever be just a few requests. If Alice is attractive enough (holistically including personality looks humor etc) that Bob the TA of History asks her out a few times, then she is also attractive enough that Carl the TA of Econ asks her out a few times, as does Daryl the TA of Calculus. At the gym, Eddy the cycling class instructor asks her out a few times, as does Fred the security check in guy, and later Gregor the piano instructor. And so on.

In some ways, allowing dating requests in professional / associational settings is like racial profiling. The same people get stopped over and over again and it happens to them all the f*cking time.

9:13 AM  

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