By now most everyone has seen the Youtube post of the woman on the New York subway who screams: “Then I see his penis out.” Link here.
And we have all thrilled to see the woman fight back against a man who had been trying to press his erect organ against her.
But what is the moral lesson here?
Those of a more Kantian bent, like Jaclyn Friedman, want to universalize the response. To her, all women, faced with harassing behavior, should fight back. If harassment were always to elicit an aggressive response, it would, in her view, stop. Link here.
Why don’t all women fight back as effectively as the woman on the subway? According to Friedman, women feel ashamed, as though they are responsible for what happened to them.
If only they could get over their feelings of shame they would call out the men who harass them.
Speaking of shame, Friedman is especially thrilled that the woman in question is shaming the man who was trying to harass her.
Shaming him in front of those who were sharing the subway ride, but also, once the encounter was taped, to the general public, and hopefully, to law enforcement authorities.
Women need to overcome their own shame while shaming the man who are harassing them. So says, Jaclyn Friedman.
Keep in mind, however, that a man who is willing to expose himself in public has largely overcome his sense of shame. Many of the men who indulge in this kind of harassment are actually proud of themselves for doing it.
While I am certainly in favor of shaming as a punishment, the truth is that the value of the video lies more in its probity as evidence for the prosecution than in its ability to shame the perpetrator.
Shame is a very tricky and very difficult concept. It should, as they say, be handled with extreme care. No one wants to encourage people to become shameless.
If we take our analysis to the next level, we must recognize, as Friedman does, that this woman is empowered and protected by the fact that she and her harasser are surrounded by other people, mostly, by the evidence of the video, by people of the masculine gender.
As Friedman puts it: “It’s not like she's in actual danger -- there are a million people around, some of whom even have cameras out. He's not a threat to her physically in this situation.”
This is not a minor detail. Would Friedman recommend the same response if the woman were in actual danger?
The video may look like a tale of female empowerment. In truth, this woman is empowered by the presence of men, all of whom are presumed to be on her side.
She is relying on the masculine instinct to protect women. Most men look severely askance at what the man is doing. And most of them would help a woman who was in distress for being harassed.
If this is a female empowerment narrative, its basis would be that women cannot count on men to protect them, because all men are harassers, actual and potential.
Sometimes fighting back is right; sometimes it is wrong. To say that it is right in all cases is simply wrong. To say that it is wrong in all cases is also wrong.
Compare the woman on the subway to another woman, named Virginia, who wrote to Margo Howard, advice columnist on the WOWOWOW blog. Here is her story: “I am utterly humiliated! I’m 32, the mother of a 14-year-old daughter, ‘Sarah,’ and a general supermom: intelligent, athletic, attractive and competent. My daughter worships me, and her friends think I’m terrific. I’ve taught Sarah to be independent and assertive, and I always try to set the example.
“A few days ago, Sarah and I came home from shopping and walked in on a couple of young punks burglarizing our home. Assertive me froze! I put my arms around Sarah and told the guys to take what they want and not hurt us. Thankfully, we were not harmed, but we were left on a bathroom floor bound and gagged with duct tape — safe but feeling helpless and humiliated. Neither of us could get loose, and we had to lie there squirming for hours until my husband came home and found us.
“Never during the time we spent bound did Sarah cry, and her fierce efforts to get loose long after I had given up made me feel proud. But her first words when our gags were removed were, ‘Mom, we could have taken them. Why did you let them tape us up?’ Those words punished me more than being confronted by robbers, more than spending hours tied up and gagged. I felt I had let my daughter down. I don’t think I’ll ever recover from the feeling that I gave in without fighting. How do I make this up to her and regain my sense of competence and authority? — Virginia” Link here.
Clearly, Virginia, and her daughter, have both learned that women should always fight back. Perhaps they have read Jaclyn Friedman, perhaps not. At least, they have drunk from the same source.
Whatever Virginia had been taught in Women’s Studies, she forgot it all when she and her daughter were confronted by punk burglars. She instantly shifted into survival mode and chose submission over confrontation.
Here is Margo Howard‘s response: “I beg to differ. Unless your teenage daughter has a black belt in karate, there’s no way the two of you could have ‘taken them.’ And even if you thought you had a chance, it wouldn’t have been a wise thing — or a sure thing. In such a situation, law enforcement people stress that you acquiesce to avoid the robbers becoming rattled and harming you. The things they took are only things. Your instincts were right, and your daughter’s were immature. (Or she’s been watching too much television.)
“This experience was an extreme version of a teachable moment, and rather than feel humiliated or that you’ve failed, make the lesson to your daughter be that the correct response is not to get into a physical altercation with two men — even “young punks” — intent on criminal activity. You in no way let her down, and I hope you will reinforce the wisdom of behaving as you did.”
Of course, Margo is right. Even if they both had studied martial arts, what would have happened if the punks had studied it also? And what if the punks had had weapons?
Do you want to bet your life on your ability to overpower two men who are, at the least, significantly stronger than you?
One should be careful not to tell women that a few lessons in karate and kung fu will so thoroughly empower them that they will be able to take down men who are bigger and stronger than they are.
Virginia’ instincts were right; her daughter’s were not just immature, and not merely the result of watching too much television. Her daughter had learned from her mother the lesson that feminists have been purveying.
Virginia’s is not exactly a happy ending. She ends up feeling humiliated and, to compound the humiliation, she has to explain to her daughter why the advice that she had been handing out now appears to be so much braggadocio.
Humiliated, yes, but also alive. Dare I say that the story could have had a much more unhappy ending.
Now Virginia feels humiliated for having been found out. She is not equal to her boasts. But how humiliated, how ashamed would she have felt if she had decided to fight back, and if her confrontational attitude had led to the burglars hurting one or both of them?
As a mother Virginia has a moral responsibility to protect her child. When their lives were at risk, her moral sense came to the fore and she chose not to take the risk.
It was surely the right thing to do.