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Harassment and Intent: Once More Unto the Breach July 10, 2012

Posted by Alex Bove in Culture and Society, Skepticism and atheism.
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I wanted to piggyback a bit off of Shaun’s recent post about shame and shaming. In the comments section, Shaun wrote:

My point was that the emotional shame we feel is often caused by actions which do not seek to cause shaming. I didn’t see the OP making the distinction between the two, so wanted to make sure that this was not another call for people to stop criticizing other people because it might hurt their feelings.

The potential disparity between the intent of a statement or act and its effect on the statement/act’s recipient is, I think, a key factor in most breakdowns in communication. I also think that several of the conversations on this blog and others in the past couple of months have not fully acknowledged the elephant in the room. Charlie Glickman recently wrote his response to the skeptical con sexual “harassment” kerfuffle, and (as I pretty much think of all of Glickman’s writing) he’s spot on.

What this situation brings up for me is the fact that there’s a big difference between doing something to deliberately and maliciously harass someone and offering an unwanted invitation or attention.

Of course, one of the big problems here is that we can’t always know what someone’s intention is in a given social interaction. They might not even fully understand their intention themselves. In addition, when someone says he/she felt “harassed,” we have to take their word for it. I’m not sure we can devise a set of rules that would objectively determine what constitutes harassment in all circumstances, and possibly not even in most. And even if we had such a set of rules, and saw people acting according to them, that still wouldn’t solve the problems because, as we’re all fond of saying around here, context matters. A lot.

While these folks’ actions weren’t appropriate in this setting, I can think of quite a few situations in which it would have been perfectly acceptable to do what they did. Swingers conventions and kink conferences both come to mind. Non-conference events like sex parties or clubs are also places where one might offer a card like theirs and walk away. For that matter, so is Folsom St. Fair. And those are also places where it very well might be “appropriate to hand someone an invitation to group sex if you haven’t already had or discussed having sex.”

I do worry about the possible sex-negativity of Elysa Anders’ characterization of her encounter at Skepticamp Ohio. Anders clearly finds the sexual nature of the invitation upsetting, not necessarily its social nature. She has subsequently said that she became friends with the “sex card” couple of Facebook prior to the encounter, which does not mean she wanted any more than a casual social relationship with them but does mean that she was not opposed to interacting with them in non-sexual ways, despite their status as relative strangers. The fact that adding the possibility of sex into a social situation is always seen as problematic (or its not being problematic is the very rare exception to the rule) suggests a cultural discomfort with the notion of sex as a relatively harmless social activity. I find that assumption to be sex negative.

I want to be clear about what I’m saying here. It seems fairly clear that the couple’s behavior violated the conference’s harassment policy, and I think it was an inappropriate thing for them to do in that context. However, I also think it’s possible that they’re simply the kind of people who see no harm in propositioning relative strangers for sex (i.e. their intent was not to harass). I’m not saying that their intention trumps (or invalidates) Anders’ reaction, but I think it’s also problematic for the reverse to be true. A person’s perception of being harassed is, of course, real to that person, regardless of the “harassing” person’s intent. But I also think that Glickman is right to say that it’s important to work “with people to distinguish between ‘this person did this thing’ and ‘I feel this way about it.'” Sometimes the gap between what a person did and how we felt about it is minute; sometimes it’s wider. Assuming it’s always one or the other gets us into unnecessary trouble. And though we should probably err on the side of caution, that doesn’t mean we’re inerrant.

Finally, Glickman suggests a four-part sequence of events between what happens and how we react:

  • Some event happens, whether by a person’s actions or chance.
  • We filter it through our experience and decide what we think it means.
  • We have an emotional response based on our interpretation of that meaning.
  • Our feelings shape how we respond to the event.

When a social encounter results in one party feeling uncomfortable, harassed, etc., I think it’s important for both parties to consider this chain of events. What in each person’s experience made them believe the interaction had a certain emotional tenor? Is it possible that they’ve both “read” the situation incorrectly? Have they both read it correctly and one person really is being an asshole? Under what circumstances would the same behavior in a different context be (or not be) offensive/harassing? In all cases, I’d argue that assuming both parties are operating in good faith is a better default position than being preemptively distrustful/cynical/defensive.

Glickman also suggests that if we hurt someone, regardless of our intent, we should be willing to “apologize and make amends,” and I think this is good advice as well. One of the reasons I think this discussion has taken some ugly turns in the blogosphere is that several writers (mostly men) have essentially said that the “offending” parties in these examples ought not to apologize for their actions. I don’t really understand this position. If you’ve hurt someone, it doesn’t really matter if you meant to hurt them. They’ve been hurt. That hurt exists, even if you believe they’re being irrational. You can, of course, choose not to apologize. You can say, “it’s your fault for misinterpreting my intent; I didn’t do anything wrong, so I won’t apologize for your reaction,” but that’s childish and staggeringly arrogant (it implies that you couldn’t possibly be wrong, for starters). I don’t think childishness and arrogance are good methods of having productive social encounters/relationships.

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