“Who Would Do That” December 10, 2017, with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons
As women (and men) once again try to break through the silence surrounding sexual harassment and abuse in our culture, how do we learn together what constitutes appropriate, or unacceptable, behavior? Have the rules really changed, or were there ever really rules? Some vintage ideas about ethics might help us unravel this dilemma. We will share Joys and Sorrows.
Click here to start at the sermon.
It will probably be helpful if I begin with a reminder of something I have said before in other contexts, which is this: I do not believe that we are fallen creatures living in a fallen world. I don’t believe in either the Garden of Eden, or the egalitarian matriarchal paradise. I don’t believe that once upon a time, everything was beautiful and kind and nonviolent and easy. I believe that we are creatures of evolution, living in a world of struggle. I believe that we are not fallen, but risen, beings – risen and rising, striving to understand and overcome the impulses of violence and domination that are an inherent part of our genetic heritage. If we humans are, as I suspect based on the similarities in the relevant DNA, descended from the same ancestral line as the great apes of today, then the use of sexuality in the establishment of dominance hierarchies is not some recent revoltin’ development of modern society and capitalism. Like infanticide, and other unattractive features of natural selection, the potential is part of our innate hardwiring as a social species, a given that we must decide not to manifest. The term ‘sexual predator’ is not arbitrary; predation of all types is instinctive behavior, and not easily suppressed.
That said, I invite you to notice the extent to which human society as we know it is predicated upon the suppression of our instincts – thank goodness! Who wants to live in a culture where people relieve themselves anywhere the impulse strikes them? One significant property of our evolutionary investment in oversized brains is the capacity to resist the very inclinations that are embedded in our genes. We have the ability to choose strategies more complex and long-term than natural selection, to achieve envisioned satisfactions beyond reproductive success. It serves us well, I think, not to forget that genetic motive; it lurks always in the background, often framing our desires unseen. Now and again we need to haul it out into the light and recognize its power, so as to uncover its rationalizations, and renew our commitments, if we have them, to other choices.
It looks to me like this is such a moment in contemporary culture. And it is not a coincidence that this occurs as a generation of women rises who were for the most part educated on the theory that their rights and powers were supposed to be equal to those of men. Not that they were equal, mind you, but that they were supposed to be. I think of myself as part of the preceding generation of women, who made that argument; who knew very well that the role of women as it was presented to us was in no way equal, and who staked the claim that there was no justification for that disparity. We tried, both as individual mothers and collectively, to teach our daughters not to buy it; not to fall into the trap of being taken care of, which is learned helplessness. And I think that, in large part, we succeeded – my young colleagues in ministry give me such hope, especially the women – and I am fiercely glad and fiercely proud of that.
As I experienced it, both for myself and in the process of nurturing others, we were too busy seeking actual jobs with equal paychecks, and actual political office with real votes in the legislature, and actual cars and mortgages and credit cards in our own names, and actual graduate degrees and real pulpits, to be distracted by the age-old annoyances of despicable men who wanted to cop a feel, or liked to see us blush. We were on a march toward genuine power, and nothing that trivial was going to get in our way. It was a double bind, you see – if we made a fuss, we were demonstrating that we were too sensitive and fragile to be allowed into the workshops of true authority. Couldn’t take a joke, wouldn’t play along, were bitter, frigid, not able to be one of the boys. Better to say nothing, we decided; get over it, smile and be strategic, suck it up; the best revenge is success. So we comforted each other, taught each other techniques to deal with the inevitable, but never challenged whether it was, indeed, inevitable. Which meant that those men, too, went right on believing that their behavior was inevitable, and therefore acceptable. “When you’re a star,” as the current president once observed, “they let you do it.”
But here is what we also know, and always knew – and trust me, this is not a defense; it’s evidence for the prosecution. Not all men were like that. Not all men are like that. Which means that no man has to be like that. And just to be clear, since the abuse of power is not unique to men; no woman has to be like that, either. To assert dominance through sexual gestures, anywhere on the spectrum from trivial to traumatic, may be an instinctive impulse, but it is still a conscious choice, and a cultural artifact. Every individual person, in every unique circumstance, has options about it, and how our society thinks about it, and talks about it or keeps silent, and teaches about it and responds to it, affects us all. Which is why it is ultimately, even in its most petty ickiness, a moral and religious issue.
Now, there are those who claim, with some indignation, that “the rules have suddenly changed;” that they should not be held accountable for behavior that was okay as far as they knew when they did it, and no one complained about it at the time, at least publicly. Then there are men like Mike Pence, who practice a set of rules that are meant to protect them from their own impulses, by famously never dining alone with a woman other than his wife, and never attending an event where alcohol is served without her being present. Aside from the fact that most of the men I know are quite clever enough to observe any number of such rules and still make themselves sexually obnoxious to the women around them if they chose to, these boundaries miss the point. As with the hair-splitting questioner who wants to know, “How much can I get away with, and still go to heaven?” it’s the mindset in itself that is the problem.
Which brings me back to Christina Hoff Sommers, and my own undergraduate study in philosophy of ethics. Here is what I recall that might be useful – there were three types of ethical theories; utilitarian, rule-based, and character-based. The utilitarian is outcome focused; often presented as what decision supplies the greatest good to the greatest number? It’s formal name is ‘teleological’, because ‘telos’ means end, or result. Rule-based ethics in turn are a known as ‘deontological,’ ‘deon’ being Greek for ‘duty’. Theories like this suggest that you decide your principles, or rules of duty, in advance of particular situations, and then right action consists of adhering to them consistently, regardless of the outcome. By implication, this suggests that if an action is not against the rules of duty, it is okay, regardless of the outcome. I want to propose that neither of these first two approaches are of much use to us in pondering the morality of sexual harassment.
Teleological ethics, or utilitarianism, makes the untenable suggestion that we must somehow calculate whether the perpetrator takes more pleasure from an act of assault than the victim receives injury. This is the implication of the tawdry defense “I meant no harm,” which suggests that the perpetrator has already decided that his own gratification would be greater than any damage the person who is the object of his attentions would experience. Such a calculation is not only impossible from a practical perspective, it is irrelevant. The violation of one individual’s personal space, privacy, sense of safety, and bodily integrity is not justifiable no matter how much pleasure someone else derives from doing it.
Rules, as I said a moment ago, do not get us to the heart of the matter, either. Rather they remind me of the squabbling siblings in the back seat of the car, one of whom, being told not to touch the other, beguiles the time by testing how close he can move his hand toward the other’s knee, hoping to provoke protest while maintaining his technical innocence. The point is that whether or not he breaches the specific boundary, his will is to torment his fellow passenger. We will never succeed at defining the rules of all social interactions so minutely as to stymy a person with evil intent; if one wishes to use whatever power they have to sexually exploit or humiliate another, it will always be possible to do so, and to feign injured virtue when called out.
So that leaves us with the third category of moral theory, character ethics. This approach suggests that right action is determined not merely by outcomes or rules, but rather by what kind of person you are trying to become. Our actions manifest the virtues that we are either cultivating or neglecting; it is by doing kind things that we become generous, by facing our fears that we become brave, by telling the truth, again and again, consistently, that we become honest. Merely obeying rules will not give you character; indeed, rules are a kind of artificial virtue for the convenience of those who have no internalized principles of character. From this perspective, the question is simple: do you want to be the kind of person in whose presence other people are safe from abuse? It has nothing to do with “How much can I get away with while staying within the letter of the law?” It has nothing to do with “I didn’t mean anything by it; I was just kidding around.” It is this, and only this: do you actually want to treat the women around you with respect? Do you want to be the kind of person who uses your power with integrity? And keeps healthy boundaries around your own and others’ sexuality? Because you cannot be that person, and at the same time gratify your instincts to touch and dominate and embarrass and provoke and harass people, with your body or your words or your photographs or your laughter.
It’s not that we don’t all have plenty to learn, both as individuals and as a society. As Professor Sommers suggests, this used to be part of the agenda of academia, to urge students to be about the business of cultivating character. It used to be that a person without internalized moral principles was not to be considered fully educated. Even more did that used to be the business of religious community, to summon its members to lives of moral excellence. Not through self-righteous rule monitoring — and not through collective political outrage, either — but rather through aspiration to ideals that invited us into the exercise of self-awareness, and intention about our inner growth.
Back in the day – at least, so I am told – that meant men of character protected the virtue of women, because women were by definition vulnerable, and lacked the power to protect themselves. Now believe me, that is not a tradeoff I am willing to reinstate! If I have to use my power as an equal human being to defend myself from sexual harassment and harm, I will do so, rather than surrender that power in exchange for someone else’s protection. But I see no reason why we cannot still live in a world where men of character – indeed, people of character – are expected not to use their power to take sexual advantages, either gross or minor, of other people. I see no reason why my body should only mostly belong to me. I recognize that this is expecting people to make choices different from those suggested by our basest instincts, and I don’t have a problem with that. All successful civilization depends on that ability; the only question is, which impulses do we require to be controlled?
Here’s the key to the riddle, in my view; as long as women as a category have significantly less power than men as a category, it will never really be culturally required that men restrain whatever urges they may have to gratify themselves with women’s bodies and attentions without regard to what those women think or feel about it. When we reach a tipping point of social and economic power in the hands of women, the popular norms about this will shift, and the rules, indeed, will change. What will not change is that there will always be, and always have been, men who did not do these things, regardless of the cultural permission, which means that such behavior is, and has always been, a choice. Wanting to know how to get away with as much harassment as possible before you get into trouble means that you are already a certain kind of person. Now I have to believe that anyone who is spending their Sunday morning sitting in this room, affirming this covenant, and supporting this mission, aspires to be better than that. Which is why character ethics matter – and the more power you have, the more they matter.
If rules help you, fine; use them. Never be alone in a room with anyone you are not married to, but that is no substitute for wanting to be the kind of person who doesn’t abuse other people. We all live in the atmosphere of patriarchy and white supremacy; I have to assume that there is plenty of oppression I participate in with complete cluelessness. But I am not trying to figure out just how much privilege I can exercise before I get called out; rather, I am trying to become the kind of person who does not want those invisible advantages; who operates out of respect, kindness, and a belief in equality regardless of what I might be able to get away with. If you are the type of person who does not wish for women to be diminished, then you don’t diminish them. You don’t brag about touching them without permission; you don’t mug for the camera as if you were assaulting them; you don’t impose yourself on them sexually without their active, conscious consent. Pay attention, people; those are examples, not the start of a list of rules. Do you see the difference? Moreover, if a woman tells you that certain behavior makes her feel diminished, you don’t argue with her about your motivations – you cut it out. And you ask yourself what was going on in your head and your heart and your gut that made you feel it was a good thing to do in the first place. By the way, don’t tell me that you don’t have the wit to make the gender translation, and recognize that you don’t do these things to men, either – because that’s not the kind of person you want to be, either.
Oh, dear ones – there is so much struggle and pain in the world! Why, oh, why should any of us make it more difficult for others? Surely that is not what we are going for; not who we most deeply hope to be to our fellow humans. What we truly want is so much better than that – the world that we long to live in together, the world that we talk about: not merely justice, but good will; not only safety, but mutual service; not just keeping our hands to ourselves, like our parents always said, but actually helping one another; not just restraining our basest instincts, but rising — to the better angels of our nature, in love, and truth, and peace. We are in this together, after all; there is no choice about that. Let’s bring our best selves to the project – the ones we have always known that we can, and ought, to be.