Friday, November 17, 2017

On Allyship

The term "allyship" always disturbed me. It turned what I considered the personal into the political. I don't need a larger society to define how I should interact with or define the rules of my friendships with members of different races or genders on a day-to-day basis. Personalities are diverse. Lindy West may demand that men stand up to men who say misogynist garbage. I do not make the same demands on my straight friends regarding homophobia. I tend to hold back and observe others, and take note of their lack of perfection and do my best not to imitate it. I try to understand and learn the stories of my friends and hope that they will learn from me. And I have befriended many homophobes and anti-Semites. As for strangers of other backgrounds, I simply try my best not to be a dick. My way of being makes me a horribly imperfect man to many, and as the activist left would say, part of the problem. If I'm not actively working to stop injustice than I am the creator of injustice. I disagree. I am fighting injustice in my own way by doing my best to quietly set an example of how to behave. I learned the most from similar figures in my own life -- teachers who quietly assumed homosexuality was natural, who treated the people of color in their classrooms with relaxed dignity, and bosses, both male and female, who didn't talk down to anyone -- and I try to teach others accordingly. I accept my own imperfections when I see them and I let others tell me when they're there and I improve. I try not to wallow in shame, although my depression makes that hard.

We've seen the fall of a lot of allies these past couple of months. Once you define allyship as part of your way of being, you are setting yourself up for hypocrisy. "Allyship" suggests rigid definitions of sexism, racism, and homophobia. It suggests a binary between "allies" and "enemies," a binary that rarely exists in the real world. Fundamentalist preachers tend to be rapists and child molesters. Is it any surprise that so many heterosexual male "allies" treat women like garbage?

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

On Watching Violent Men

You might not be able to recite it word-for-word, but you have probably never forgotten the gist of the opening line of Memories of My Melancholy Whores, the last novel by Gabriel García Márquez. "The year I turned ninety, I wanted to give myself the gift of a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin." Edith Grossman translated the novel. I saw her speak some years ago and she pointed to some of the moral dilemmas in her career. Throughout García Márquez's oeuvre, there is scene after scene of lovemaking between adult men and adolescent females. The relationships are often exploitive, and outside even statutory rules, many of them are outright rapes. The language renders these scenes exquisite and titillating. But fiction is fiction, and like a great musician interpreting a master, Grossman transfers that titillation from the Hispanophone to the Anglophone world. 

Grossman has her limits. She could not translate a 16th-century poem by Lope de Vega because she thought it was Islamophobic. Grossman lives in New York and she was horrified by the Muslim-bashing that followed the September 11, 2001 attacks. She did not want to contribute so much as a breath to that atmosphere.

The distinctions in the two cases are fascinating and don't follow any of the conventional wisdom with which we usually consider these problems. Lope is a citizen of the distant past, which we try to forgive as much as possible. We can't impose our morality in that foreign country. García Márquez is a citizen of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. He doesn't get the same pass. Lope is guilty of racism. García Márquez, through the disguise of fiction, is an apologist for what we used to call on college campuses and now call everywhere rape culture. Lope's poem would likely have been read by very few people, most of them academics or undergraduates whose teachers would have worked to put the work in cultural context. García Márquez's novels are best-sellers. Your friends who don't read LITERATURE read him. 

Writing words which condemn members of a different race or religious background as a member of a separate species is simply more painful than writing words which treat 12-14-year-old girls as objects for 90-year-old men. So Grossman's decision is as much visceral as it is intellectual. But I think I know the source of this difference.  If I'm kind to myself, I will claim that I can transfer the excitement I feel when I read these passages from García Márquez to my own more common/respectable/amoral thoughts on twenty-something men. I don't have an out when I read Oliver Twist. To delight in Fagan is to delight in a hatred of Jews. There is no transference possible. There is only one group that you know of which follows the contours of the stereotypes set down by Dickens. To be caught in the charisma of the language and narrative is to surrender. And I surrender over and over again. I don't believe literary critics who claim otherwise for themselves. Jewish critics turn away from Eliot less because Eliot insults them than because they fear indulging a latent Jewish anti-Semitism.
Film doesn't offer the same out. You don't get to watch Manhattan (Woody Allen, 1979) and transfer the camera's love for a seventeen-year-old Mariel Hemingway on anyone else. Whether or not you think it's wrong to find seventeen-year-olds attractive or not, you don't get to be kind to yourself. (Personally, I think Hollywood makes us all bisexual.) You also don't get to ignore the power of the body of the man who commits the violence. García Márquez confronts you with his language, with the power of his ventriloquism. But, despite his celebrity, he doesn't force you to look at his own dirty old man's body. Even a memoir expressing such desires are somewhat separate from the body from which those words originated, especially in the era of type. But to delight in Kevin Spacey's satanic performances is to delight in the body that in our actual world terrorized so many people.

I saw the preview for All the Money in the World (Ridley Scott, 2017), and I regret that I won't get to see Spacey in what would have been the final performance of his career. He looked fun and terrifying, his evil more organic than it had ever seemed before. I don't need to see Mel Gibson play a romantic lead again, but I'm all for the misogynist/bigoted fucker playing villains. We need the safety of fiction to believe we're still good people when we enjoy evil. We don't need the safety of fiction to enjoy evil.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

On How They Get Away With It

There were a lot of rumors about one of my colleagues. That he was an alcoholic and a drug addict. That he preyed on undergraduate men who were unsure of their sexuality. That some of these undergraduates were his former students. That he also had sex with students while they were still his students. I saw the alcohol abuse in person. I never saw the drug abuse. I never knew any substantiated claim that he had sex with students while they were still his students. (Quick answer for those who are asking: Sex with students while they are still your students is illegal. Sex with former students is legal but discouraged.) There is a wide grey line between how you should and shouldn't interact with your students. Whereas the rest of us every now and then tiptoed onto that grey line -- by becoming Facebook friends with our students, buying them a drink when we bumped into them at a bar a year after the class was over, or becoming willing (most often for me unwilling) unlicensed psychiatrists when they detailed their history of mental illness in office hours -- he lived on that line. I'm not accusing him of ever breaking a law with a student. I am saying that if a scandal broke, none of us would have been shocked. (In keeping with the profile of the accused that we've seen over and over again this past month, he also liked to bully and exert power over people to whom he wasn't sexually attracted. I was on the receiving end of that bullying. He could also be quite charming and carried the appearance of hyper-professionalism in many social contexts. In short, he gave me the creeps.)

Should I have said something? Should I have dropped a line to a special office that handled those complaints? Ethically: I had no evidence of anything clearcut. I've been on the receiving end of nasty gossip. I didn't want to put anyone -- even someone who I really didn't like -- through an investigation who didn't deserve to be investigated. Selfishly: I was a low man in that world. If I had gone to someone with any authority, it could have backfired on me.

In the end, he did commit a crime, a crime which had nothing to do with sexual assault or predation, but it was ugly. He killed whatever respect he would otherwise have had with me and most of his colleagues. To this day, there have been no substantiated claims of sexual assault or predation and I still sort of give him the benefit of the doubt, as he seemed to be the kind of guy who followed most of the rules on this issue to the letter, always aware of just how far he could go. But if something were to break now, I would have to ask myself: "Did I blow it? Did I shirk my moral responsibility? Did we all?"

My experience barely touches the experiences of so many others that we have been reading about. Still, it gave me much needed insight. This is how "they" get away with it. I have yet to see a solid answer for how we can stop any, let alone all of this abuse.

Monday, November 13, 2017

On the Criticisms of #metoo

From what I understand there are two major criticisms of the #metoo movement. The first is that its definition of sexual harassment is too broad. The second is that its definition of workplace harassment is too narrow.

In the first article I linked to, Cathy Young, a sharp necessary voice from Reason, suggests that in our rush to expose some truly gruesome behavior -- who the hell corners a woman in a hallway just to masturbate in front of her!? -- has led us to either over-punish lesser crimes or make relatively innocuous behavior seem criminal. A recently married couple, both feminists -- by which I mean they spend a fair amount of their thinking lives dissecting male privilege -- met while working together. The generalization that no one should ever flirt in the work environment doesn't make a lot of sense to them. I guess they're right. But we have all seen the office flirt who may never touch a woman and who keeps inappropriate comments to a minimum who still creates an uncomfortable, possibly toxic working environment. Young doesn't defend Leon Wieseltier's behavior, but she is uncomfortable with his firing. I'm not so ready to go with Young here. I've been on the receiving end of Wieseltier-type behavior outside work: unwanted and forced kissing, subtle attempts to use power in order to receive a sexual favor. I couldn't imagine having the specter of that threat on a daily basis in my place of employment. If I were his boss, I'd want him gone. But would a stern and early talking-to have solved the problem with Wieseltier? 

Closer to home, here in academia, we have all seen relationships between professors and graduate students and between instructors (professors and graduate students) and undergraduate students. One friend is adamant that all such relationships should be banned outright. Another friend tells me that he sees some hypocrisy in how these relationships are considered. Sometimes, the relationships work out well in the long run, in which case everyone approves. When the relationships fail, everyone blames the more powerful party for exploiting a former charge. Long ago, I created my own rule, not only for sexual relationships but for all relationships between myself and students. I wait until at least a year after a class has finished before I even befriend a student in any significant way, so as to avoid any imbalance in power in our day-to-day interactions. If a sexual relationship should come, it would have to be initiated by the former student. In seven years, I have befriended about three former students. I have never had a sexual relationship with a former student and highly doubt I ever will.

As for the second claim, posited by Barbara Ehrenreich, the #metoo movement has become so centered on the most privileged women in our society, ignoring hotel maids and fast-food workers. It ignores the many other types of degradation such women (and men) suffer in the day-to-day: wage theft, petty humiliations, etc... She proposes strong unions as the primary answer. You can't trust HR. You can trust a union rep who is more than prepared to introduce your boss to a union lawyer. 

Ehrenreich's criticisms are more important than Young's. Both are noting the movement's solipsism, and of course the tendency we all have to declare our specific experiences universal and to create single, unimpeachable rules in every and all cases. 

But the movement is not even two months old. This is just the start. If all the movement does is make well-meaning people a little more aware of how their behavior may be more of a problem than they realize, terrible people scared, and victims a little less lonely, it will have done, on balance, a hell of a lot more good than bad.


Friday, November 10, 2017

On Using the Term Pedophilia

Sex with a 14-year-old is not pedophilia. Pedophilia involves sex with a pre-pubescent. A 14-year-old is post-pubescent. He or she is not a child. He or she is a teenager. There are reasons to condemn sex with a 14-year-old. But you have to use the right words.

I don't read articles that call sex with 14-year-olds pedophilia. The writers of those articles are either ignorant, dishonest, or cowardly. They are not worth my time.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

On Kevin Spacey

The stories that have come out so far about Kevin Spacey are disturbing and depressing. They depict a sad, miserable, closeted twenty-something pining for young teenagers who were not interested in him. The teenagers were hurt, of course, and their pain is the most important part of the stories. I imagine a gay 14-year-old suffering the one-time aggressive advance of a gay adult would be traumatized, as would a straight 17-year-old suffering an attempted "grooming" from a gay man. The reaction to these two stories, however, has been terrible, as laid out in this Slate piece. Spacey is many things. But he is not remorseless. He is not using the rainbow flag as cover for his terrible behavior. And he is not -- fuck you, Dan Savage -- a pedophile. The stories are three decades old. If he had raped either of these teenagers, I might feel differently, but people can change. There should be some kind of statute of limitations. If he hasn't behaved this way once since the 1980s, I don't see why he should lose his career.

The problem, of course, is that we don't know all the stories. I fear and suspect that much worse is going to come out over the coming weeks and months. The stories will be more recent. The pain he caused may be worse.

But we need to be clearer with our language. Pedophilia is easy enough to define for anyone who bothers to talk to psychiatrists. Coercive sex, less so. It's not clear to me where inappropriate behavior crosses over into outright harassment. And rape is something very specific.

In a few weeks, we will have the opportunity to see Call Me By Your Name, a film adaptation of a wonderful novel by the same name. It tells the story of a romance between a 24-year-old and 17-year-old. It's a beautiful tale, and yes, the sort of thing it describes exists in the real world too. Sometimes teenage boys can have wonderful, special relationships with twenty-something men. If you don't know that, it's your loss.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

On Be a Man

On this blog, I tend to spend a lot of time warning of the potential consequences involved in assuming guilt until proven innocence. I tend not to harp on the effects sexual violence has on victims. My friends take it as a given that most rape accusations are true and that sexual violence will in all probability cause a lifetime of hurt, pain, and depression. My friends also take it as a given that the constant threat of sexual violence forces a cruel burden upon women. Many of the people in my world don't have the same concerns for due process.

If I'm truly honest with myself, however, I have to admit the following: I have twice been the victim of what would legally be called sexual assault, but those experiences, while objectively terrible, did not cause me a lifetime of pain. I have also been on the receiving end of nasty gossip and assumptions about my moral character that I knew, absolutely, were not true. These latter experiences have kept me up at night. I have more in common with the obnoxious but not guilty Duke lacrosse players than I have with the many women Harvey Weinstein raped.

I still believe we need to figure out a better way to balance the rights of accused and accuser in campus sexual assault cases. I still believe I was right to avoid jumping to any conclusions when the first accusations hit Ed Murray in the spring and just as right to join the crowd in condemning him when even more details hit over the summer. But this blog is about defining priorities. And when I see this story, I see why so many women (and many men) are not so concerned with the plight of the wrongly accused as I am.

I don't know the answer to solving what looks like an epidemic of violence towards women. I agree with the argument that the focus needs to focus on prevention, on teaching men how to treat women. But I'm also relearning what I was probably aware of when I was five and allowed myself to be carefully taught to forget: Fuck the patriarchy and the gender binary. Fuck the phrase "Be a man!", three words that cause terrible misery for everyone and will eventually lead to pathetic excuses for human beings violating the bodies of countless women.