Like many others, I find the current collective hysteria about sexual harassment a bit overwhelming. Around November 22nd or 23rd, a woman came on FB proclaiming that she was willing to hurt the completely innocent to combat the scourge of harassment of women. She mentioned it was part of the struggle against the “patriarchy.” She said she was willing to “pay the price,” (meaning hurting any number of innocent men). The exchange that followed demonstrated that she was not acting sarcastic. If I were the dramatic kind of guy, I would say this it the beginning of the end of civilization, also a good argument in favor of a now non-existent patriarchy. (Non-existent in the US. Explanations on request.)
Since the repulsive Harvey Weinstein began disgracing the pages of newspapers daily, I have been trying to inject little shots of rationality into the brouhaha. I know it’s not much but if half of all rational people – especially women – do the same I believe we will have a significantly calming effect. Given the overpowering nature of the media excitement, I don’t have the courage to develop an overall strategy of rationality injections. Instead, I do a little bit of this and a little bit of that according to my mood and according to my availability on a particular day. Sometimes the relevance of my intervention to the current situation may seem only tangential. I assure you it’s worth thinking about it though (if you have time).
My main reaction to all of the horror stories in the media is this: Even if they are all 100% true, these stories tell only part of the larger story; they exist in a vacuum. The relationships (plural) between men and women are complex and often conducted at an infra-conscious level. A new fact for our species as a whole is that they are often enacted between perfect strangers. Not long ago, it practically never happened. People had plenty of occasions to find out about one another before anybody made a move. No more. Here is a true story about all this.
A long time ago, I am at an academic meeting in Chicago. I am still a fairly new academic but not a total novice. American university professors are supposed to be actively engaged in scholarship (“research”). Many actually are. Periodically, college professors in their several disciplines get together at academic meetings to present their research papers to one another – sometimes to a nearly empty room. They listen to one another and sometimes, they argue. It’s well understood though that the main function of this custom is to network rather than to spread knowledge. Normally, your employing university pays your way entirely. Such meetings are one of the fringe benefits of academia.
After delivering my own paper, I head for the coffee shop of the hotel where the meeting is being held. It’s about 3PM and I need a pick-me-up. The place is not crowded but most tables are occupied. I find one next to a table where a youngish woman is sitting alone before what appears to be a formal tea-set. As I sit down, I say “Hello” politely. She answers the same way. That’s the established custom at academic meetings: We are not strangers even if we are. My saluting her does not mean I am trying to pick her up, I know and she knows. She is in her early thirties, a very short, slight and pretty women with dark hair and black eyes.
After I order, I introduce myself as one does in such meetings and I ask what’s her specialty and where she comes from. She is a historian employed by a university about which I know little. I am a sociologist at a big Midwestern university. She has a light foreign accent I can’t place. I have a foreign accent not so hard to place, I guess. She asks me if I am French. She is a Lebanese Christian herself. It turns out her people and the French go way back. Her native language is Arabic but her English is perfect. She starts talking about her research and I about mine. We discover that we have earned our doctoral degrees from the same university, within two years of each other. We guess we never crossed paths because we were both studious and we used different ends of the main library there, in accordance with our respective disciplines.
What follows is a conversation of about one hour that should have been recorded for posterity. It was a model of gracious intellectual interchange between two cultured people who have enough in common to be able to communicate untrammeled, but with enough differences that they may yet be interesting to each other. We had much to discuss beside our scholarship, including the little-explored experience of middle-class immigrants to the US. The whole conversation stayed on the highest plane you can think of, no levity, no small talk, no useless words. This interchange might even have been enough by itself to justify the mind-boggling expense of academic meetings. It may have been the best conversation I had had, and have had in my life.
All the while, my new acquaintance has been drinking tea. With a lull in the conversation, she excuses herself to go to the restroom. When she returns, as she is slipping back into her seat, she looks straight a me and she says,
“I want you to know there is zero chance I will have sex with you.”
If I had not been sitting down, I would fallen backward from being embarrassed for her. I was so amazed, it took me several seconds to reply, “I was just thinking the same.” Immediately, I regret my retort because, with its devious ambiguity, it’s impossibly rude. I do what I can by way of friendly noises, to make up for it. Then, we say goodbye. The academic meeting is coming to an end the next day; we don’t bump into each other again. Two years later, we did meet again. But, that is another story, obviously.
What’s your point, you may ask? I don’t know, you tell me, especially if you are a woman.