Thursday, January 18, 2018

L’Affaire Ansari, or: Why Etiquette is Important

 Well, the internet slime machine went to work on Caitlyn Flanagan’s piece on L’Affaire Ansari right away.

She’s defending Ansari!  She’s blaming the victim!  I don’t see her as doing either of these things.  I think she is suggesting that we should have a conversation about important matters that seem to have somehow dropped off the map.  She points out that, when she was the age of the pseudonymous “Grace,” young women read articles, even books, that in effect were guides to how to avoid being victimized by men.  Women her age discussed and thought about ideas that could be express as rough rules of thumb, like  these: “A date should not begin with your meeting him alone in his apartment/hotel room/house.”  “Never drink alcohol alone with an older man you hardly know.”  “Be willing to slap his face if necessary.”  “Always have cabfare.  If things go wrong, trusting him to take you home may be a bad idea.”  For the most part, such ideas, and the issues raised by them, seem to be far, far from Grace’s mind.  Should they be?

The attitude behind much of the response to the Flanagan piece and the backlash against the #MeToo movement (a movement that I applaud) seems to be something like this: There is a problem in the land, and the problem is that men are like Ansari.  What is the solution?  Men have to change.  It’s their responsibility, not ours!  I agree.  Change into what?  They have to respect women!  Agree again, but what does that mean in terms of concrete behavior?  Every step in a sexual encounter has to be consented to.  Fine.  What does consent consist of, in terms of actual behavior?  Consent is not mere acquiescence.  It’s more subtle than that.  It can consist of non-verbal cues.  The same is true of refusal of consent.  Men have to learn to noice and respond to these things.

It’s not that I disagree with any of the italicised statements above.  It’s just this: You are asking for a moral revolution.  Well, good!  You might say I’m in the moral revolution business myself.  Always have been.  But if your revolution rests on cues that have to be given and noticed when you are both half-undressed and his tongue is in your yoohoo, then entirely too much work is being done by this abstract notion of “consent.”  Your revolution is going nowhere, because it asks people to do something that they cannot do.  You are asking them to regulate their conduct by abstractions with little obvious concrete meaning.

At the beginning of this republic, Thomas Jefferson realized that the old notions of etiquette and courtesy, which were aristocratic and based on respect for hierarchy, would have to be demolished and replaced by a new democratic etiquette based on respect for everybody.  Obviously, the demolition did happen, but Jefferson’s dream of a new etiquette of respect for persons never took place.  Courtesy was replaced with – nothing.  “Respect” and “consent” are not replacements, because they are high-level abstractions.  They need low-level rules of thumb in order to be applied to actual conduct.  Does a guy who suggests that a first date begin with a woman coming into his apartment, alone, and drink with him, thereby show a lack of respect for her?  I think it is arguable that he does, but my point really is that, whether he does or not, thinking about whether the question gives your idea more body and heft than a mere gaseous abstraction.  Etiquette and casuistry are where the rubber of moral principle hits the road of conduct.  We need to talk about things like this.  And trying to shame those who bring it up into silence by accusing them of “blaming the victim” is really not helpful at all.
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