Friday, January 10, 2014

Rape, Chivalry, Sexual Dimorphism

Three related thoughts about the differences between men and women, and the way these become virulently poisonous.

I. Rape is an ugly reality in animal life, including the life of humanity. We have developed many tools to curb and contain it. Unsurprisingly, some tools work better than others, and any tool can be recycled as a weapon (perpetrating abuse instead of containing it). We have not found a final solution for rape that is universal (applicable to everyone always). I do not think we will. The most we can do is educate ourselves (about the dangers in the world and the reality that we cannot control them perfectly, as a species or as individuals).

We must not blame victims. That will not help them (as they seek healing) or us (as we seek means to protect them and others like them, including ourselves). Rape is out there no matter what you wear, no matter what god you pray to (or ignore), no matter what meetings you attend, no matter your education (etc.). Your job as a human being is to make sure primarily (1) that you don't perpetrate it, and only secondarily (2) that you equip yourself to fight or flee it when it finds you--as best you can. It is never your fault that you remain vulnerable. We are all vulnerable. Nobody says that a victim of assault or robbery "should have practised street-fighting more." That is a worthless comment, particularly when it comes from someone who has never been attacked. People are not the same, and neither are their circumstances. Bad things happen to good people all the time (I mean "good" in the broadest sense here, encompassing everything from "innocent" to "morally upright" to "prepared").

Therapy (religion, applied science) worth anything is not about pouring salt in the wounds of the innocent. A really righteous person would not waste time warning young women (or men) to cover their shoulders and then blame any rape on their failing to heed his warning. He would warn them not to be or become tolerant of rapists. If any of them were raped, he would respond with empathy: "I am really sorry that happened to you. Please don't feel that it was in any way your fault. You cannot be held accountable for the fact that some other people are monsters. You are not a monster. I love you." This is what bearing the burden of your fellow men and women looks like. You commiserate with them (rather than looking for a way to make everything awful in their life appear to be somehow their fault, a disaster of their own making).

The real problem we see today in modesty rhetoric, I think, is lack of empathy. People want to help, even conservative religious people, but they fail to notice that blaming the victim really isn't helping (anyone, at all, ever: even if the victim takes the message to heart and begins wearing burkhas and training for combat, that is no guarantee that rape won't happen). I like to imagine that if people could see more clearly into the mind of victims, perhaps if they themselves became victims (not that I wish that for anyone), they would realize their error and stop "helping" (and maybe even apologize for their sins).

I definitely agree that rape is a male issue (a meme I have encountered several times in society). But I think women should talk about it, too (as they do in real life). As one of the really tough, intractable problems in human experience, it is fundamentally a human problem (that we all share, that we all must struggle to solve, even though there is no such thing as a final solution).

The really tough reality I confront here is that we are not all alike. We do not see the same things in the world; even if we do, we do not see them the same way. We experience life differently, as individuals and communities. Our unlikeness means that we cannot approach rape the same way. My approach cannot be yours (or vice versa). My community cannot be yours (or vice versa). The solution I make for myself cannot be the solution the community makes together, and there is no such thing as a single, unified solution that applies to all situations universally.

When we say that rape is a female issue, we are lying (it seems to me, and I think decent people agree). I am wary of making it a male issue because that too strikes me as a lie (or at best an incomplete truth: I think rape is fundamentally a human problem that we must all confront individually and together, in dialogue with one another).

The problem with making rape a female issue is that this provides criminals with an easy out (when they blame the victim for their bad behavior). The problem with making rape a male issue is that this leads to behavior that many women experience as benevolent sexism (that criminals can incorporate as a front for their bad behavior: "I held the door for you, so you owe me your life!"). The truth is that there are many different fronts we need to attend in the battle against rape (I think). Victims don't need the same therapy as perpetrators. Potential victims don't need the same therapy as actual victims. Men don't need the same approach as women, I would venture to say, though we definitely need to talk to each other about our mutual experiences and expectations (so that we have a reasonable chance of incorporating the best information into whatever solutions we end up devising to deal with the criminals). 

II. I am going to speak for a moment as a man (not a woman), a Westerner (Anglo-Saxon), and a religious person (with a fair amount of experience working in "rough" environments, among human beings whom some modern progressives would occasionally be tempted to execrate as boorish, homophobic, racist, sexist, misogynist trash). Coming from my background, I have to say that I see a real positive utility arising from chivalry. The men among whom I grew up were not a uniform bunch. Some were very educated (like my father); others were not (at all). Some were physical monsters (capable of picking up a small car and/or fighting wild animals in the woods); others were not. Some were decent; others were not. The decent ones, uneducated or not, typically adopted an approach to life that sought to demonstrate respect for others, particularly for those who might feel threatened by them (e.g. when circumstances put them and a weaker person in close proximity: "weaker" need not imply physical inferiority, though that was definitely a recurrent issue; it also indicates inequality in social privilege that recurs in human experience, as in baboon experience). Sometimes, decent people would get the respect signal wrong; they would misjudge the person they wanted to conciliate (e.g. when they opened the door for an angry young woman who didn't want that). Their response would be to take the blowback from that mistake on the chin: "I'm sorry! I didn't mean to offend you. What can I do to make it up? Leave you alone? Offer you something? I am at your service."

Whether rightly or wrongly, these men offered an approach to life that was accessible to me as a young man. I needed a way to relate to others, particularly those I didn't and couldn't really understand (e.g. most women and many men, too). I needed a way to exist without imposing myself (as I have never wanted to do), and they offered it. I think chivalry is historically as good a word as any for their attitude (though I am open to others that might sound less sexist), which I find echoed in old poetry and literature occasionally named (whether with approval or disgust) chivalrous. The worship of woman (which recurs in literature such as I am invoking here) has problems, of course (see my comment above), but the decent men in my life have convinced me that these are more artificial than fundamental (particularly when we notice how they apply also to relationships with "weaker" males). By that I mean that the fundamental attitude of polite deference to others, particularly when circumstances conspire to make one appear powerful, is a good one. The problem with chivalry is that many people (including many stupid men) confuse it with gestures rather than attitude. Instead of seeing the principle of respecting others' autonomy (granting them room to situate themselves comfortably relative to you), they see some arbitrary rule ("a woman's place is to sit around and wait for me to open the door for her").

The decent men I know would never accept shenanigans such as occurred (e.g.) recently in Steubenville. Though very physical, and on occasion even frightening (to me, as a man), they made it clear to me over and over--in quiet conversations in the locker room or at church or some other place where we happened to coincide, and in their interaction with people--that they had a deep sense of their own personal dignity, and the corresponding personal dignity of every individual human being that they interacted with (male, female, big, small, black, white, foreign, domestic, powerful, weak: it did not matter). I saw that other men might talk or make gestures like the really decent ones without being really decent. I noticed that chivalry (respect, whatever one wants to call it) is more than a collection of shallow rules. I also learned that the really decent folk with power (raw physical power or social privilege or whatever) were keenly aware of their own weakness--of the temptation that their position offered for "taking unfair advantage"--and that they took conscious measures to avoid becoming the perpetrators of abuse. They also made a point of noting how their strength inevitably depended on the cooperation of others, how it was not really their own. (Some of them expressed this by attributing it to God, not because they identified God as their own whim, but for the opposite reason: "God" for them meant "not me, the world outside me that I cannot understand but that I choose to confront with dignity.")

As a human, I see that chivalry has limits. I see that it cannot be the solution of every person (or even of every man). But I am not ready to throw it away, myself, as a man. I have found it more useful than not.

III. To me it seems that there is only one distinction between the sexes (male and female) clear enough to be written into law: men cannot give birth, so final decisions regarding reproduction belong exclusively to women.

Everything else (the more or less imaginary gender p
references and aptitudes whose ebb and flow we observe in contentious scientific literature) should be sorted out extralegally (definitely) and without social coercion (e.g. in the form of referenda promoting one group's fantasy of gender roles at the expense of everyone else). If women don't want to be CEOs (as I don't, though I am not a woman), then they shouldn't have to be; but that should be their decision, not an expectation imposed externally. Society should have no definite gender roles enforced by law (certainly) and should resist the idea of softer enforcement (e.g. via the continuation of work requirements that make it unnecessarily difficult for qualified individuals to live as they find opportunity and desire).