11 August 2013

Excluded Middles

Jim Hines's cartoon summary of the public brouhaha1 concerning sexual harassment/misconduct at speculative-fiction-oriented conventions is a sadly accurate depiction of reality. And it's certainly not limited to speculative-fiction-oriented conventions — consider the depressing evidence amassed by Senator Gillibrand on sexual harassment in the military, and remember that that's from an unusually open and honest set of sources that is unusually willing to engage in self-examination and take internal corrective measures. The less said about the legal profession's role, responses to this particular issue regarding others, and own problems, the better.

Jim's cartoon accurately depicts several unsatisfactory aspects of the brouhaha, largely because virtually everyone engaged in it is excluding the middle and refusing to acknowledge that anyone else's position might have any hint of truth, let alone might reflect real concerns. Breaking down each of the three panels, choosing randomly whether to start on the left or the right side of the panel, demonstrates that the conversation depicted cannot and will not lead to any improvements for damned near anyone. Flipping a coin and coming up with "tails"...

  • Panel 1, right — the responders — reflects the "black hat/white hat" theory of character all too accurately. To put it in another, current, context, those responders are implicitly arguing that because Mayor Filner is in favor of political and social ends of which they approve, he can't possibly have any character flaws. Or, perhaps, it's like Patton and his infamous temper. Sorry, guys (and it's almost all guys), but character does matter... and if you need some real proof of that, consider how much of modern "progressive" politics rests on policy and legislative initiatives pushed by Richard Milhaus Nixon, whose character flaws were so deep that they cannot redeem those initiatives (and arguably taint them today).

    Panel 1, left — the complainant — reflects a clear misunderstanding of fears of persecution, whether justified or not. Birmingham Sixes exist, and there's a natural tendency to presume that "worthies" (see the preceding paragraph) do not have those flaws and therefore are more subject to "false" complaints. This is entirely understandable: No victim should be required to be entirely rational and even-handed when reporting an incident. (Honestly, no victim can be — from sexual harassment to genocide — and we ignore that at our peril.)

  • Panel 2 (flip: heads ) left — the complainant — reflects the kind of middle ground that often gives middle grounds a bad name. On one hand, there's an understandable desire to avoid reliving the incident, and to look forward to prevention. On the other hand, the timidity of the statement's presentation invites precisely the kinds of responses (even those offered in good faith, which one cannot judge from the cartoon) that become great big stinking barrels of red herrings. It's just bad communication strategy, and perhaps the worst of all worlds. If you really want proof of that, just look at the recent mistreatment of Ms Matthesen before the perp's name leaked.2 Her story instantly became more "credible" once a name was out. Keep in mind that this is, in the end, a decision only a victim can make; third-party accusers should be more circumspect absent immediate danger of escalation by the perceived perpetrator.

    Panel 2, right — the responders — reflects ignorance of three serious problems with communication of complaints in general, but especially complaints concerning sex. First, there's the presumption that any amount of detail would be sufficient to convince some "defenders" (and they tend to be the loudest ones) of what actually happened; consider the "defenses" offered concerning Bosnia before the prececessor of the International Criminal Court... Second, there's the presumption by those who have never been victims of serious misconduct that the victim can, in fact, accurately recall every one of those details afterward, in the face of all the objective evidence that eyewitness testimony is often unreliable (even from trained observers). Third, there's an undercurrent that the victim "needs" to relive the event again, in detail, for the fact of the event to matter. To anyone.

  • Panel 3 (flip: tails) right — the responders — reflects what happens in a vacuum: Somebody comes along to fill it. In this instance, it's an abuse-of-power vacuum. Blaming victims is never ethically, morally, logically, or rationally appropriate — but it's a common reaction nonetheless. It's also entirely understandable (if still wrong) coming from people who have never, themselves, been recognizably victimized; that is, it's also entirely understandable (if still wrong) coming from people who are, or perceive that they are, on the strong end of the power spectrum. More disturbingly, it's also understandable (if still wrong) coming from people who have experienced, or believe they have experienced, "reverse discrimination" in any context, especially when that discrimination extended from viewpoint disapproval to viewpoint suppression.

    Panel 3, left — the complainant — reflects a common response to abuse, and particularly among victims who have observed previous incidents (whether or not concerning them individually), or even heard of previous incidents (real or imaginary), in which the real "witch hunt" was of the victim. This extends from high school "slut shaming" to the tactics engaged in by too many defense counsel in sexual misconduct trials concerning a high-power/prestige accused abuser. That a nonzero proportion (however small) really does involve objective "innocence" of the accused just reinforces this in a particularly vicious positive feedback loop.

There are really two excluded middles here. First, there's the excluded middle of communication: That we're supposed to be learning something, even if it's distasteful and about people we otherwise admire. Sometimes that includes the victim; as a particularly distasteful example, not every sexual encounter of even a sex-addicted "escort" (if one exists, and regardless of gender/orientation) falls outside of any reasonable definition of "rape." The cartoon all too accurately depicts the unwillingness of anyone to learn. In this instance, I'm not blaming the complainants at all; I'm blaming the people who set up the systems in which complainants must complain. The people who have no understanding whatsoever of trauma, of PTSD, of what it actually takes to verify anything, and are concerned almost entirely with public relations aspects of misconduct complaints and their own potential liability (see footnote 2 below).

Second, and far more damaging (and damning to us all), there's the excluded middle of responses, and of time. The implicit assumption of the responders is that the only thing that matters, or will happen, is individual punishment of the accused, and those responders for whatever reason identify to at least some extent with the accused. That identification may come from the conduct; it more often comes from the consequences, particularly from misguided "zero tolerance" policies (and especially those "zero tolerance" policies that impose maximum punishment for each "offense"). The implicit assumption of the complainant is that the incident was isolated and personal, because to her (or him) it was... and anyone who believes that looking more broadly at context is easy just needs to look at the misguided, more-extreme Zionist policies that come disturbingly close to slipping yellow armbands onto Palestinians. Instead, everyone in this brouhaha seems concerned only with one point in time and one particular incident/response cycle.3 The punishment aspect should be our primary concern if, and only if, we believe that some form of "deterrence" is not only the most effective, but virtually the only, way to prevent future problems. As flawed as humanity is, I think it is better than that... but it requires more effort, more time, and more admission of self-imperfection to fill in this particular middle, which has far more than fifty shades of grey in it.

Better communication and broader horizons, combined with attention to context and efforts to alter it. What a shock that I'm advocating that particular response to a society-level problem... or that I'm unwilling to advocate a universal solution without allowing for any possible exceptions. Then, during the better part of a decade as a commanding officer, I was involved as a decisionmaker whose options were severely restricted by a smaller-than-optimal toolbox in more than one incident involving accusations of sexual harassment — and worse. There are no victors here, and trying to convert the brouhaha to a win/lose argument is illogical, unethical, and stupid. If that means that I'm "insensitive" to someone's needs, for some value of "someone," so be it; I'm imperfect.

  1. Why am I using a silly word about a serious subject? Primarily, because almost all of the "serious" words have been coopted by one or more "sides" on the issue. If I call it a "controversy," I'll be accused of minimizing it. If I call it a "conversation," I'll be misrepresenting it because there's so little communication actually occurring. If I call it an "outrage," or anything else with overt emotional content, I'll be accused of prejuding not just the general issues, but the individuals involved. That this all sounds like posturing at recess at a particularly class- and ethnicity-divided elementary school is not a coincidence: Ultimately, I believe that a certain immaturity is behind most of the rhetoric and solutions spewed forth from almost everyone on what is truly a serious issue and problem.
  2. Let's just say that Ms Matthesen was misled by more than one individual/organization to whom she turned and leave it at that, ok? Unlike a victim in one of these situations, I have specific confidentiality obligations that prevent me from saying an awful lot more than that.
  3. Indeed, that's the main reason that Senator Gillibrand's initiative to take criminal prosecution decisions concerning sexual misconduct away from unit commanders is wrong. Not only will it not work — it will just create cultural barriers making it even harder for victims to walk into the JAG's office, and if you don't think the "customer base" of a JAG's office is part of the rumor mill you've never been on a military installation — but it entirely avoids the necessity of changing the entire culture. She would have been better off proposing that West Point be closed, on the ground that we're getting lots of excellent officers through ROTC who do not go through a training program that begins with six weeks of counterproductive, inexcusable abuse... but West Point is in her state, so I didn't really expect that. I certainly don't expect acknowledgement that there's a cultural problem in the way we commission officers from the senior commissioned-officer leadership that benefitted from the (largely undeserved) promotion advantages of that West Point source of commissioning! (And I think the same — perhaps even more so — concerning Annapolis and Colorado Springs; after all, I personally know both complainants there... and commandants there.)