Friday, October 31, 2014

Verbal harassment is wrong, even if you're trying to be nice

Photo Credit: Magdalena Roeseler
Before delving into the substance of this post, I have a few comments on the subject of men writing about feminism. Several feminist writers have expressed misgivings about "male allies" in feminism. I think these pieces are important. One of the main thrusts feminist thought is the recognition that male voices have historically been dominant in social discourse, and female voices have been largely suppressed and erased. For a movement that seeks to address that disparity, the threat of men taking over the discussion or undermining it should be taken seriously.

One common method of defending privilege is denying the experiences of the oppressed. Feminism shines a light on female experiences that have often been denied or ignored, and in that way, men have little to contribute to feminism. However, we all have a part to play in improving our society, and shaping cultural values.

Which brings me to the topic of street harassment. A woman recently posted a video compiling some of the verbal harassment she faced walking around New York City. I know women face this harassment all the time, but the video made it startlingly vivid for me.

Some people (mostly men, but a few women) did not see all the comments in the video as harassment. This is a huge problem. As Kat George puts it, "Women feel vulnerable on the street, period. When a man interacts with her on any level she did not invite, it’s threatening, period." Another way to put this would be to look at the simplest definition of harassment, which is "unwanted attention." Since we can assume, and many women have said, that being frequently verbally commented on in the streets is unwanted, we should classify such comments as harassment.

George goes on to list several behaviors that absolutely constitute street harassment, and I think no reasonable person should disagree. However, there is one argument in her article that I do disagree with. She writes,
I retweeted the post from my personal account, and while many sane people expressed support for the article, some responded with questions like, “But don’t you think some of those guys were just trying to be nice?” No. No I don’t think that. Not for one second.
And later,
...after enough years of encountering enough different kinds of people engaging in enough different kinds of interactions, all women (YES, ALL WOMEN) develop a sixth sense: We can immediately tell if someone is, in fact, being “nice”, or if their seemingly innocuous words or actions are laden with latent undertones of objectification and entitlement, and the threatening implications that go along with someone who holds that view – who views you as a less-than-human thing which they want and feel entitled to have – has set their sights on you. We can tell. 
This line of argument seems to me to be unnecessary, and incorrect. To be clear, I'm not denying that women may experience this "sixth sense" about the intentions of men. But I do deny that they in fact have access to the intentions of others, because discerning others' intentions is a notoriously difficult task(indeed, attributions of this sort are consistently plagued with prejudice). In fact, the philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that we often don't even know what our own intentions are.

But George needn't have made this argument at all. The intentions of the offender don't determine the wrongness of the act (though they might somewhat mitigate the blameworthiness of the individual.) Men shouldn't comment on a woman's appearance in the street, even if he is only trying to pay her a compliment.

Regardless of what a man intends by his comments, he is likely to contribute to the objectification, fear, and discomfort that women are openly telling the world they feel. This is sufficient reason for concluding that these comments ought to be omitted. Because this argument doesn't't rely on any false assumptions, it is stronger than George's argument. This argument also has the plausible result that, for instance, gay men don't get a pass for commenting on a random woman's appearance on the street (yes, it happens).

It destroys the false dichotomy of good men vs. bad men implicit in George's view. It's just not the case that just some men are a scheming to objectify women, and women just need to avoid these men. Men, who might in all sincerity believe they are simply complimenting a woman, are likely to intact be harassing her.

Which, in the end, is the point of George's list of harassment behaviors. It shows that, as we really should expect, there are some things that shouldn't be done if we want a polite (and safe, and secure, society.) And it councils all men that, even if they think their intentions are pure, they should probably just let that woman walk by in silence.

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