"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Everything is permitted and nothing is forgiven

Ms. Deneuve as Marianne

Am I wrong, or old, or French, or all three, that I find myself agreeing with Catherine Deneuve and her co-signatories?

"Rape is a crime, but trying to seduce someone, even persistently or cack-handedly, is not -- nor is being gentlemanly a macho attack," said the letter published in the daily Le Monde.

"Men have been punished summarily, forced out of their jobs when all they did was touch someone's knee or try to steal a kiss," said the letter, which was also signed by Catherine Millet, author of the hugely explicit 2002 memoir, "The Sexual Life of Catherine M.".

Men had been dragged through the mud, they argued, for "talking about intimate subjects during professional dinners or for sending sexually-charged messages to women who did not return their attentions".

The letter attacked feminist social media campaigns like #MeToo and its French equivalent #Balancetonporc (Call out your pig) for unleashing this "puritanical... wave of purification".

It claimed that "legitimate and necessary protest against the sexual violence that women are subject to, particularly in their professional lives", had turned into a witch-hunt.

"What began as freeing women up to speak has today turned into the opposite -- we intimidate people into speaking 'correctly', shout down those who don't fall into line, and those women who refused to bend (to the new realities) are regarded as complicit and traitors."

"The accidents of life that might touch a woman's body should not necessarily affect her dignity, and should not -- no matter how hard they are -- make her a perpetual victim," the letter argued.

Some women who were strong enough to demand equal pay, it claimed, would "not be traumatised forever by a fondler on the metro", even if it is a crime, preferring to see it as a "non-event".

"Instead of helping women, this frenzy to send (male chauvinist) 'pigs' to the abattoir actually helps the enemies of sexual liberty -- religious extremists and the worst sort of reactionaries," the collective of women who signed the letter said.

"As women we do not recognise ourselves in this feminism, which beyond denouncing the abuse of power, takes on a hatred of men and of sexuality."

They insisted that women were "sufficiently aware that the sexual urge is by its nature wild and aggressive. But we are also clear-eyed enough not to confuse an awkward attempt to pick someone up with a sexual attack."

The spectacle of men being forced into "public confessions... and having to rack their brains and apologise for 'inappropriate behaviour' that might have happened 10, 20 or 30 years before... recalled totalitarian societies," the letter went on.

This "puritan wave" was already bringing censorship in its wake, the women insisted, claiming that some of them had already been asked to make the male characters in their writing "less sexist", and told to tone down certain scenes to "better show the trauma suffered by female characters".

Some of this is, incidentally, consistent with Anglo-Saxon law.  I've remarked on the standard for civil assault before:  the contact must be offensive, not to the plaintiff (or, in modern parlance, "victim") but to a reasonably prudent person.  It is a standard meant to universalize the standard of the law, but also to keep us from seeing anyone with a complaint as a victim; or treating them that way, either.  Oddly, that road runs both ways.  "Do you see this woman?," Jesus asks Simon the Pharisee.  The question today could as easily be phrased "Do you see this victim?"  Except Jesus is asking us to see a person, a fellow human being; the modern question is asking us to see an object, a what, not a who. Who gets to declare that status, and what power does it give you in the world to claim it, or just to name it?  It can be an abuse of power in itself.

I haven't read the letter itself, as I haven't gone looking on-line for a translation.  What I know of it I know from this one article, which doesn't seem to inclined to be favorable toward it.  That said, there may be portions of the letter I disagree with strongly, on factual matters.  The article, for example, mentions that Ms. Deneuve is skeptical that Roman Polanski's accused rape of a 13 year old is indeed rape, despite the young girl's age.  She and I would strongly disagree on that; then again, that subject doesn't seem to come up in the letter.  And I'm not defending Harvey Weinstein; but I do know there have also been Al Franken and Garrison Keillor, and others similarly accused of the most minor of offenses, caught up in this frenzy.  James Franco is having his turn in the barrel as I write.  The parts of the letter quoted in the article don't, to my mind, speak of the offenses of Mr. Weinstein.  They seem to speak more to the problems of frenzy, and the avid desire to punish because you have the power to do so.

That's the letter; Ms. Deneuve's personal opinions are:

"I don't think it is the right method to change things, it is excessive," she said last year. "After 'Calling out your pig' what are we going to have, 'Call out your whore?'" she said.

The stereotype of the Puritans is that nothing was permitted, and nothing was forgiven.  And there is a real demand, not for justice but for vengeance, in the articles I've read about #MeToo and now "Time's Up."  Is there an excess in this response to what they decry as excess?  Perhaps; as I say, I haven't read the whole letter.  But they are certainly right about the excess they are decrying.

Besides, when everything is permitted and nothing is forgiven, it's at best one step forward, and two steps back.

And just to undercut my point a bit, but to make an old point in a new way:

We usually don’t think about infant mortality in the United States. We associate it with the developing world or with the distant past. Globally, in just the brief period between 1960 and 2001, infant mortality declined from 126 infant deaths per 1,000 live births to 57 per 1,000 live births.

The United States has the highest rate of infant mortality of any of these comparison countries while Japan, the competitor with the longest life expectancy, has the lowest. In the United States, the most common causes of infant mortality are congenital malformations and disorders associated with low birth-weight and short gestation.

Which is the problem we are going to be sure to address?  This trend, by the way, represents a reversal over the past 50 years.  In 1960 we were twelfth in infant mortality; 57 years later we're at the bottom.  Welcome to the future.


Blogger The Thought Criminal said...

The problem is how to differentiate the credible accusations from those which aren't credible or just blatantly opportunistic. I read a number of articles about the petition that Deneuve seems to have spearheaded and I get the feeling that it's sort of like the anti-anti-communism of American liberals, I think it's anti-"Puritan" only in order to be anti-"Puritan" they are pro-sexual harasser and worse. I had known her views on the Polanski case and have read some quite shocking interpretations of "feminism" that didn't seem to value the lives of women without power or position. Not to mention the boys and men who were also victims of more powerful men abusing or harassing them.

I think it's generally a situation where there need to be stronger formal relationships surrounding employment and any other situation in which there are people without power subject to decisions by people with more power. If it were anything but sex I don't think people would insert accusations of "Puritanism" into it and the problem might be seen to be what it was more easily.

10:33 AM  
Blogger Rmj said...

There is something of the Gallic soul which finds it identity in not being "Anglo-Saxon" (they're catch-all for England and America). They take pride in the fact their system of justice is not like the British/American system at all (the differences are intriguing), and equally pride themselves on their sexual mores. Garisson Keillor once described them as the most sexually mature people on the planet, and in some sense, I think he's right.

Which is not to say they are always right and we are always wrong. I would, however, react against a group in this country that declared we must call out our "pigs." Even today, James Franco is now accused by 5 women of some measure of impropriety, rudeness: I don't know what. If it doesn't amount to rape or assault and battery, I honestly don't want to know.

This is back to the days of child care horror stories where we were told to believe the children because why would the children lie? Now Mira Sorvino pens an "open letter" to Dylan Farrow saying she believes Farrow's story of abuse. Why do we care? Because Sorvino starred in a Woody Allen movie once (and that's about the last anyone ever heard of her, so maybe she needs the publicity?).

Interestingly, the child care horror stories came up in part over base anxiety about turning our children over to strangers who weren't government employees (public school teachers), but we refuse to make child care a public health/public school issue. The French see it quite differently: child care is provided by the government, and very carefully regulated. I don't think they've ever gone through that paranoid witch-hunt atmosphere, which we tend to do over and over again.

And witch hunts have their origin in America, in popular culture anyway, with the Puritans.

12:15 PM  
Blogger The Thought Criminal said...

One of the problems is the tendency to want to generalize when the only relevant issues are the specific case under consideration. And, people being people, there seem to be an irresistible urge to act as badly as you figure you can get away with and to get back at people over petty wrongs. But the problem is sometimes real wrongs were done and in some institutions they were considered just the way things got done or even a joke (the Weinstein joke told at one of the big awards ceremonies a few years back).

It's a problem with a lot of crimes.

I'm not sure I'd agree with Keillor about the maturity of the French culture in so far as sex is concerned, they can be pretty puerile, as puerile as Americans at their worst. And grotesquely exploitative, too. When I read the articles and read what Deneuve and others involved with the letter said I heard the habit of automatically taking "the man's" side, which is not unknown here or there. And there's the desire to be seen as "anti-Puritan" anti-prude, "sophisticated," even "adult" about sex.

I am also afraid that when I read what they were saying I really did think automatically of the Danse Apache and what a truly disgusting thing it was, a nightclub dance act based on a man beating up and treating a woman like dirt. And how it was seen as a part of sophisticated French popular culture.

I will admit that over the years, as I was exposed to lots of it in French lit classes, I came to find the secularist side of French culture to be rather decadent and disgusting. In a lot, though not all, instances. A friend and I went through an anthology of contemporary French stories about twenty years ago and we both got more and more depressed until we came to the last story Trafic de Cheveaux by Jacques Perret about two scoundrels who talk their way into a boat going to Bermuda by posing as the guys who were supposed to handle a cargo of horses, by comparison it was so uplifting, I think it was because the author was Canadian and not French. I think the French like the Brits think they can substitute pessimism and gloom and cynicism for profundity. Not that a lot of Americans don't do the same thing. Gloom and cynicism are a cheap substitute for profundity if profundity is too hard or an author doesn't have it in them to start with.

3:26 PM  
Blogger rustypickup said...

This is a time that I need to really disagree. Women in the workplace can be our equals and professionals, or they can be sex objects for leering men, but they can't be both. To bring the legal standards for sexual assault into the workplace and call that sufficient is to really miss the mark. (And all my comments apply equally to same sex situations too.) What may be at least tolerable in a bar, can be completely inappropriate in a workplace. A workplace comes with an entire set of power dynamics. Advancement, salary or even continued employment are all in play. Ms. Deneuve is a successful and famous actress. She can readily decline a sexual invitation or crude behavior with little or no consequence. Most women (and the worst workplace sexual harassment takes place in the lowest payed jobs) are not in the that position. To be living paycheck to paycheck and to be propositioned by your boss is a radically different experience. Two of my daughters in their 20's have been asked for dates from their coworkers and have accepted or declined based on their own interest. They would feel differently if it was their manager asking (and we have had conversations about this), and would feel harassed if a coworker was crude or physically touched them.

This blog rightly spends a lot of time talking about justice. But so far the conversation around this topic as been very focused on justice for the accused and very little on the victim. If the penalty for behavior is imprisonment, then the beyond a reasonable doubt standard and full due process is absolutely required. If the punishment is a financial settlement between private parties, then justice is attained by a standard of more likely than not and a full due process standard. If it's behavior at work, then what counts as the standard and due process may be less or at least different. For political office it will be something yet again.

To import the legal standards of evidence and due process into the workplace or political process is to ultimately reward the powerful and wealthy. They will get lots of justice and the victims will get little or none. Weinstein was able to marshal a small army of lawyers to avoid accountability. To demand that their cases be proven in court before there could be any consequences to Weinstein (or Franken) is to have a system where the powerful can deny justice even when they lose by stretching out a case (justice delayed is justice denied). What starting actress is in a position to afford to sue Weinstein and his army of lawyers?

In the end our sense of justice has to include context, power, standards of evidence and what counts as due process for the circumstances. For criminal and civil liability, they should be clear and comprehensive. For politics, they can (and in my should) be different. And finally, in the workplace, the standards of acceptable behavior should be high if we want everyone to be actual equals. "Hey babe, want to get a hotel room?" is ok in a bar, should get a letter of reprimand for a coworker, and should result in firing for a boss.

3:28 PM  
Blogger Rmj said...

Well, the legal standard for the workplace is pretty limited, too (by which I mean what applies in the office relationship doesn't necessarily apply in the social setting. Just as an example, most of the complaints against Al Franken were the latter.). And I have nothing against it, except I don't want to see any loosely-defined standard become grounds for a kangaroo court in which people lose their jobs because we disapprove now (and probably not later) of their alleged behavior. That isn't even the standard for a "hostile work environment" claim.

Which is to say: sorry, but the legal standards of due process and evidence do apply in the workplace, and have for decades now. Indeed, most of the impetus behind the social disgust with piggish behavior (or worse) is the result of harassment and discrimination law, not in spite of it. And to refuse to follow due process is to follow Shakespeare's famous quote, which he meant as a formula for anarchy: "First, let's kill all the lawyers."

Harvey Weinstein's offenses are serious and severe, and he's admitted to most of them now. Al Franken's offenses were petty, and not at all unambiguous in the end; he even challenged some of them. But a pound of flesh was demanded, and "justice" was done? You'll never convince me of that. Justice delayed may be justice denied, but justice is not mere revenge for an offense, whatever the offense is.

I understand politics does not follow the severe standards of the court, and that's fine with me (unfortunately, though, it requires the ability to shame the whore. I admire Franken for the way he resigned; Trump is shameless, and no amount of political abuse will dislodge him prematurely). Workplace standards should be high, but you should still have to prove a boss said "Want to get a hotel room?" Because otherwise all the power is on one side, and it doesn't matter what you do, only who accuses you. I've actually been on the receiving end of that kind of power (not accusations of sexual misconduct, but simple matters of pastoral employment) and believe me, you don't want to be in that situation.

5:56 PM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home