Allow me to begin this brief meditation by urging everyone to calm down. Okay, I grant this intro may have worked some people up all by itself.
Let’s begin again, shall we? There is nothing here that should be a cause for alarm, but given the times in which we live, there will likely be alarm anyway. A ruckus, in other words, but no good reason for it.
I tell you what. I will just state the thesis at the outset, and provide my reasoning after the fact. Most efficient use of everyone’s time. Best for all concerned. Those who want to leave in a huff may do so now. In short, with regard to people, I want to argue for the moral necessity of judging a book by its cover.
We are a generation marinated in visual entertainment. This has resulted a generation of folks who are extraordinarily street smart—provided, of course, there is a bag of popcorn on their lap. Once they are back out on the sidewalk, blinking in the daylight, they are as clueless—when it comes to the consequences of all storytelling signals—as that bag of popcorn. In brief, they are street smart provided they aren’t anywhere near the street.
This is because they have taken the entertainment part out of the theater with them—people’s initial reactions—but they want to have their movie-shaped sensibilities to be absolutely consequence-free as far as any real results in the real world are concerned.
So if someone “does x,” or “wears y,” and people react to him the way everyone reacts to that same set of signals in the movies, then the problem is read as the bigotry of the person who reacted in that way. The problem could never be how that person is casting, costuming, and directing his very own real time movie. We have been so thoroughly catechized by this blinkering process that we don’t even think about it anymore. A daily demand is placed upon us to “read this that way,” but we are absolutely prohibited from “reading this that same way” outside the theater.
Three examples. Suppose a director wanted his character to dash down the subway steps late at night to be confronted with three dangerous looking characters, leaning against the wall of the platform. Could he do that in three seconds? Yes, why yes, he could. Suppose a director wanted his character to be revealed as a high end courtesan. Could he do that in three seconds? Again, yes. Suppose a director wanted to show us a brooding husband, capable of violence against his wife at any moment. Yes, and that would only take seconds as well. I am talking about communicating these things by means of slender indicators, marks that by no means rise to the level of courtroom proof, but which in every way rise to the level of storytelling identification. Jurors should not consider such things sufficient, but readers and viewers must.
But we are suckers for misdirection. If the three thugs in the subway are black, say, and are telegraphed as trouble by means of low-slung jeans and hoodies, and a nervous real life person picks up his pace to get past them, he is thereby condemned as a racial bigot. How dare he react to their skin that way? How does he know they are not accounting majors at CUNY? But we are actively suppressing our knowledge that this misidentification happened because of the cloth, not the skin. The same exact effect could have been accomplished with white skin and motorcycle gang regalia.
The issue is the kind of signal that was deliberately sent by the thugs who were directing and starring in their own movie. In a movie, the signal is sent and received by all—by the other characters in the movie, and everyone with a bag of popcorn. Everybody gets it because everybody is allowed to get it. But in real life, the signal is sent, and mild reactions are enjoyed (being kind of the point), while any real time hard consequences in such reactions are upbraided as unmitigated prejudice.
But the way we dress is communication. What we are doing is communicating, and then insulting as a bigot anybody who is stupid enough to believe what we just said.
One time I was visiting with a young man about his tats and spiky hair and such, and I asked him what he would think if he walked by three ladies from the church all done up like that. His reply was right out of the Cool Kids’ Catechism. “I guess I really don’t care what people think of me.” So then I asked him this. Suppose we got you a haircut, a buttoned-up shirt, a tie and jacket, and walked you by those very same ladies. You are no doubt correct in thinking that their impression now would be something like what a sharp looking young man he is. The guy I was talking to was no slouch, and he kind of smiled and said, “I guess I do care what people think of me.”
Exactly so. The consternation we create for ourselves is found in the fact that we send signals that demand a simultaneous reaction/non-reaction. The right to reinvent yourself has been steered into that bizarre place where everybody has a divine right to communicate A and not A to everybody else, all at the same time. It is like dress-like-a-gangster-day in junior high—where everybody can gasp oooo! but then nobody gets sent to the principal’s office for the plastic gun.
If someone gets sent to the principal’s office, it is because of all the entrenched bigotries we still have to contend with. Nobody around here is woke at all.
Back to the high end hooker. Could a capable director make that statement with no other materials to work with than a ritzy hotel lobby, a platinum wig, heels, and earrings that sparkle like a disco ball? Such that any movie-goer who didn’t get the point was an idiot? Yeah. Now when a woman casts herself in that role, and decks herself out in that same way—and I would like to flag my upcoming emphasis for any of my readers who struggle in this area—this does not make her a hooker. But it does mean that—if the world were just—she loses all ground of possible offense if some poor chump in the lobby makes the faux pas of his life. If she was not selling, why was she advertising?
She insists, with furious indignation, that she was not advertising. She was simply waiting in the lobby for her ride. But she was dressed exactly like 100 women in the movies we have seen who were advertising. Why was the chump not allowed to draw this conclusion? Well, let me ask you. Was there popcorn in his lap? There wasn’t now, was there?
Now work with me here, because I would like to run ahead just a few steps. Nothing justifies rape. Absolutely nothing. I would like to take a moment to make this additional important point, which is that nothing justifies rape. In case people have not grasped how strongly I feel about this, I would like to insist that nothing justifies rape.
To use an offbeat analogy, it is also true that nothing justifies holding up a taco stand and shooting the clerk. Robbery is robbery, and murder is murder, and should always be treated as such. But it is possible to hold this position while also maintaining that a taco stand ought not to advertise that they are selling sushi when they are in fact not selling sushi at all. And if that was the fact that made the shooter mad in the first place, it still doesn’t matter because nothing justifies shooting the taco guy, etc. So that principle is clear?
A chaste but foolish young woman does not deserve to be assaulted. Of course not. But she does deserve to hear an admonition from her favorite aunt. She does need to hear a caution from her husband. She does need to have a couple of embarrassing situations from which she might gather some wisdom. And the fact that we are being deliberately shaped and catechized into our incoherence by our entertainment habits can be seen in this simple fact. If someone maintains that a foolishly dressed woman deserves anything at all, even if only mild embarrassment when her aunt talks to her, this is represented as being tantamount to the claim that getting raped would be nothing but her just deserts. Which is crazy.
The problem I am addressing here is the incoherence of an entire generation that wants to be something or someone else, at their leisure, at their will, while never having to pay any kind of cost for being that something or someone else. It is all part of our generation’s revolt against maturity. We think that an entire civilization can flourish while stuck in junior high, all of us pretending to be gangsters and molls.
Extra credit kudos option for those comment: The foregoing post contains a five-word phrase that in saner times would be entirely inoffensive, but in these, our loony times, will not be inoffensive at all. I put in there on purpose. A special attaboy will be awarded to the first one who identifies it.