Sunday, December 22, 2019

Mass Delusion

Beyond “media fatigue,” or what Soraya Chemaly, writing for CNN, called “profound societal misogyny,” or what the New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino described as “the hardening of [her] own heart,” I detect something else at play in the underwhelmed response to Carroll’s allegation [that Donald Trump sexually assaulted her]. That something is at once more sinister and more jaded: We have stopped pretending, collectively, that we expect those on whom we bestow tremendous power to behave with commensurate responsibility.
Moira Donegan “E. Jean Carroll and the ‘Hideosity Bar’
So this raises a question: If we understand that we don’t genuinely “expect those on whom we bestow tremendous power to behave with commensurate responsibility,” is there actually value in the pretense? Would E. Jean Carroll, Rose McGowan, Joan Tarshis, Chanel Miller or any of the other women who have alleged sexual assault on the part of men who have had tremendous power bestowed upon them, be any better off if society still pretended to have high expectations of those men?

But it seems to me that there is actually a broader collective pretending at work, one that’s been the standard for some time: That “value,” as applied to people, is an objective measure, and its universal equality is a matter of factual truth.

And even if one says that the value that is placed on human life and/or concepts of dignity are not subject to human choice, they are still subject to human perception. Accountability has costs. And if those costs are perceived to be greater than the benefits, then one can see why it isn’t pursued, even if there is legitimate disagreement over the accuracy of the calculus involved.

So while I take Ms. Donegan’s meaning, I suspect that the sinister piece wouldn’t be that “We have stopped pretending, collectively, that we expect those on whom we bestow tremendous power to behave with commensurate responsibility,” but rather that society originated and maintained the pretense for long enough that it often seems rational to behave as if it were true. (But this, is, of course, a cynical viewpoint. A more charitable one is simply that, collectively, the public has concluded that it does, in fact, expect that those who have had power bestowed upon them to behave responsibly and holds them accountable when they fail; and that there is no failure here. While a sizable and vocal minority may disagree with that understanding of the facts, it remains that the minority is incapable of swaying the collective determination, and so it stands.)

Ms. Donegan laments that “Laughter is, perhaps, also an appropriate response to the country that allows a man like Trump to maintain his status, his money, and the respect of his peers, a country that would allow a man like him to become president and still have the audacity to pretend that women are equals, in status or in law. In that sense, her story really is laughable.” But is there really audacity in telling oneself and others that one actually is the person, the nation or the society that one is expected to be, regardless of the reality? Is it really laughable that people will present themselves as the persons they are told they are supposed to be? Is it really unexpected that hiding the parts of oneself that are labelled as unacceptable is easier than changing them?

The difference between “there wasn’t a foul, so the referee didn’t blow the whistle” and “the referee didn’t blow the whistle, so there wasn’t a foul,” may seem clear when stated in as many words, but is often less so in practice. And I don’t believe that there is any question that part of the reason why so many people allow themselves to be convinced of the referee’s infallibility is that it makes it easy, and unaudacious, to believe that they live in a world where all people are equal, in status or in law, and that violations will be detected and punished.

But there is also another side the question of the expectations that we have of men, or people in general, “who have had tremendous power bestowed upon them.” It’s one thing to say that people have low expectations. It’s another to understand what their expectations actually are. Perhaps what social critics see as “more sinister and more jaded,” than misogyny or hard-heartedness is the fact that society’s expectations are more practical that moral. People expect celebrities to entertain them, political figures to advance their interests and businesspeople to provide worthwhile goods and services. And that may be the standard of accountability that is being applied, rather than an adherence to ethics or law.

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