The New York Times Room for Debate series has, of late, ranged from the irrelevant to the presumptive, which is unfortunate given the size of its soapbox and its ability to offer meaningful insight into issues confronting society. There are often good arguments on both sides of an issue, worth knowing if a thoughtful society is to make intelligent decisions.
One of the problems reflected in the editorial choices made is their favoring advocates and academics as their “debaters,” the former bringing a woeful lack of doctrinal knowledge and the latter bringing a woeful lack of real world experience.
More often than not, the debaters fail to inform, and instead inflame as die-hard advocates of the cause. Rarely does the Times invite a knowledgeable practitioner, say a criminal defense lawyer, to opine, when they raise questions of, say, criminal law.
Today’s Room for Debate, brought to my attention by Liliana Segura, is one of both great interest and concern to those of use who address the intersection of criminal law, First Amendment law and, dare I say it, feminist concerns. The question posed: Do We Need a Law Against Catcalling?
The issue arose following the release of a donation-solicitation video that’s been embraced by many women as demonstrating the pervasiveness of “street harassment.”
The comments range from sexual to “hello,” “smile” and “god bless.” Notably, it appears that almost every male in the video is of color, and the neighborhoods are predominantly ethnic, reflecting a disturbing racial and cultural bias. Whether an undesired “hello” is harassment is never discussed. This, as is presumed by all involved, including the New York Times, constitutes the new “crime” of “street harassment.”
To the extent it has any parameters, it is the undesired communication by a male to a female, without regard to content. It is, presumptively again, per se “intimidating,” not because it suggests any objective basis for concern, but because women feel that they should not have to hear words they prefer not to hear, and forcing them to do so on the street annoys them. Things that annoy women should be crimes.
The Times offers four debaters, three of whom are feminist advocates whose opinions range from whether this “street harassment” is deserving of life imprisonment or life imprisonment plus Ebola. One, a sociology professor and director of the Center for Legal Studies at Northwestern University, Laura Beth Nielsen, suggests that this is the equivalent of cross-burning.
I’d propose a law that would prohibit street harassment and would also be consistent with our First Amendment jurisprudence about other kinds of hate speech (cross-burning in Virginia vs. Black) that intimidates, harasses and perpetuates inequality. It would allow states and cities to recognize street harassment for what it is: physical and psychological acts that intimidate, exclude, subordinate and reinforce male dominance over women.
For an academic to hint that a man saying hello to a woman on the street is hate speech, even the most distant equivalent to cross-burning, is the nadir of intellectual dishonesty. For the Times to publish such tripe is a disgrace. Not even the beloved Gray Lady gets to make people stupider.
The fourth debater, Gabe Rottman, is a policy analyst from the ACLU. His role is to offer a tepid defense of free speech, based upon the premise that existing laws are sufficient to put these street harassers in prison.
Emphatically, none of this is to dismiss the legitimate concerns raised by this video and the ongoing problem of street harassment. We should be grateful for the activists who are seeking to raise awareness about this demeaning and despicable practice. We can, however, combat street harassment without sacrificing free speech or risking unintended side effects.
Apparently, the Room for Debate folks were unable to find any thoughtful voice to question the underlying premise, that the utterance of words, even if unseemly, on the street rises to the level of harassment at all. Or to the question of whether anything that a woman finds undesirable or annoying, is automatically swept up in pejorative language like “harassment.”
One of the most dangerous, ongoing issues is the use of such terminology untethered from meaning; the same can be said of sexual assault, which can range from a physical attack to “stare rape” and off-color jokes. This is the lexicon of Humpty Dumpty, if not George Orwell. Neither words nor conduct is magically transformed into “harassment” because someone chooses it to be so. Words have meaning, and meaning is not informed by each individual’s feelings.
The knee-jerk reaction to anyone who questions the dogma of victimization is that it must be in support of the hated conduct. It’s a logical fallacy, but one of many that’s ignored, and a banal defensive reaction. I don’t write in support of catcalling. I don’t do it, and wouldn’t. I don’t commend it, and wouldn’t.
That it’s annoying isn’t in dispute, but neither life nor the law entitles anyone to go through life without annoyances. In the scheme of such things, the annoyances reflected in the video are remarkably petty. That anyone would even consider a man saying an unwanted hello to a woman worthy of prosecution reflects how detached a grasp the relative evils of life appear when viewed through the prism of feminist entitlement to a world where they are never annoyed.
There are bad things, terrible things, that happen to people, and to women, well deserving of punitive sanction. Basic annoyance isn’t one of them. Should the group that used this video to seek financing want to promote greater respect for women on the street by putting an end to this annoying conduct, bully for them.
That anyone would even consider this criminal, however, is far beyond the pale. Resort to punishing males for failing to be adequately sensitive to the feelings of females as a solution to societal problems reflects a sickness that is permeating society. And it’s not the males who are sick.
Additional voices that the New York Times failed to include in the debate (to be added as they go live):
Different cultures and ethnicities have different ideas of what constitutes appropriate intersexual behavioral, and there’s no particular reason why the standards of upper-middle-class white feminist women should set the norm for everyone. In the old melting-pot days, it might have been appropriate to say that minorities needed to be assimilated to traditional WASP standards of decorum — “civilized” or “elevated” in the idiom of the day. But we’ve long since moved past the notion that there is only one legitimate way to behave as an American.
Is feminism an upper-middle-class white women’s club?