From the War Diary of the Canadian Cyclists Battalion: Thursday, August 8th, 1918 (near Gentelles, France) “…After resting in the Quarry for about 20 minutes, a verbal order was passed along that everybody was to go over the top and rush the enemy machine guns.”
Every so often I read a news story that just sticks in my craw. It keeps rising up in my mind for days and sitting there in front of me. It might not be the most earth shattering event, but generally it stinks of bullying and injustice.
This was a story in the New Yorker by the writer Mary Karr. It has a simple plot. She was walking down the street in New York City on a sunny day, minding her own business, as the cliché goes. Two thirtyish men came walking the other way, chatting. Suddenly one lunged at her, grabbed her crotch with a large hand, called her a cunt, and then casually walked into a nearby sandwich shop as if nothing had happened. She pulled herself together, called the cops, and with them managed to chase him down and have him arrested. He was booked, but never tried.
The story is appalling and mundane at the same time. That’s why it stuck with me, I guess. Now, knowing of the tape of Donald Trump boasting about doing exactly this, it has even more immediacy.
Every woman I have ever known well enough to talk about such things has told me stories like this. The offenses ranged from insults and filthy come-ons, through fondling and unwanted physical contact, to penetrative rape. Sexual assault, to one degree or another, and being treated like a thing, is a universal experience for women. I have known this for years.
The thing about the New Yorker story that gets me is the casual, public nature of the assault. He wasn’t furtive, worried about being seen. There were people walking by when he did it. He hadn’t planned it or thought about what might happen after he did it. Apparently it was like scratching an itch. From Karr’s description he was surprised that she had any reaction at all.
This leads me to Immanuel Kant, the 18th century German philosopher. In his Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals he proposed a concept he called the categorical imperative. I’ll spare you the philosophical verbiage and deliver it in common speech: Live by rules that could be universal, without contradiction. Even more simply: What if everyone did what you did?
I’d like to introduce a categorical imperative of sorts for dealing with the widespread sexual harassment of women. What if everyone said “No”? Look back at the story of Mary Karr. There were people walking by. Some of them must have seen what happened. I have heard plenty of stories from women who were molested in public places. Sadly, people have a habit of thinking “Not my job” and looking the other way.
But what if, what if, when a woman gets grabbed on the subway or the street, everyone nearby turned on the perpetrator and just said “No!”? I’m not suggesting that anyone get into a fight, or even call the cops. I’m suggesting that people pull their faces out of their phones for five seconds, stare hard at the perv in question, and firmly say no. Riff on it if you like. “Not okay!” “Stop that!” and “Get away from her!” will also do.
I’m also suggesting that when we, meaning men, hear the kind of degrading talk that Trump engaged in, we should do more than just go quiet and look away. It’s easy to think to yourself, “I don’t have the time for this”, or “I just need this guy to do X about Y so I can get out of here.” I have been guilty of this myself. The guy doing the trash talking then gets the idea that the concepts he is proposing are acceptable.
A friend of mine earned my eternal respect in this category. He worked with a bunch of certified rednecks, on the road doing industrial work. One night, in some far away city, a group of them invited him to go out to a strip club with them. Most of us, me included, would have begged off with some vague excuse. My friend said, “No, I think that strip clubs are demeaning to women.” That is social courage. As history has shown, men would rather charge machine guns than look bad in front of their friends.
I’m not asking anybody to charge machine guns. I’m asking people to do the very least they can do. Say one word, or a few, in the right place and time. If a habitual molester found himself always faced down by a crowd, he’d get out of the habit. A habitual trash talker would rethink things in the face of constant disapproval. Human beings are utterly susceptible to social pressure. If even one in ten of us resolved to do this we could make it happen.