clap clap blog: we have moved

Wednesday, March 03, 2004
I'm willing to deal with a certain amount of libertarian liberal-baiting--uh, I'm sorry, ex-libertarian liberal-baiting--but I dunno, it's something about the gloat that makes it necessary to respond to crap like this.

It is galling, is it not, when paradigms shift? Nobody yells, "Strap yourselves in, we are changing our minds, we?re lurching suddenly and inexplicably to the other side of the scale." They just change positions and then pretend to have never even heard of the previous belief system. Victim feminism has fallen out of fashion?and nobody warned Naomi Wolf about the tanking stocks.

In Charles Mackay?s Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds (1841), he invokes the term "moral pandemics" and charts the phenomenon of mass fevers that have swept nations through history, burning down reason, and in some cases destroying whole societies. One chapter deals with the tulip frenzy that seized the upper classes of Europe in the 17th century, driving the entire economy until one day, interest waned, the fever passed and noblemen who?d sunk their fortunes into a few rare tulip bulbs became suicidal.

So it is with hot political ideas. They have electric currency for years, and then suddenly, they lose value, because in fact, they never were real; their value lay only in what we were willing to imbue them with and project onto them. Fevers break, thank God, and it is when they break that humanity returns to its senses, and sees, for the first time, how the fever itself distorted everything?made shadows look like monsters.

Aside from the fact that sincerely citing Mackay's book like no one's ever heard of it before (and appending the publication date, no less!) is basically grounds for ignoring someone's argument, this is garbage. Sure, the conventional wisdom on sexual harassment is different than it was in the '90s, but it's different than it was in the '50s, too, and that just indicates that we're a long way from going to "the other side of the scale." If anything, we've simply moderated to a more sensible position. When this all started out, the fact is that the attitude being expressed was very much against the grain of what most people thought; lechery was kind of accepted, or at least tolerated. And so the problem was that we knew how bad that could get, but we didn't know what was at the extreme end of vigilance against sexual harassment. Now we do. This is, for better or worse, how we work out societal problems. You could make the argument, accurately I think, that the fact that we're now less sensitive to charges of sexual harassment means that the imbalance has been largely corrected; if it wasn't, we wouldn't have confidence that Bloom would be properly dealt with and we'd overreact. In some cases, a policy is successful once people start getting sick of the policy--this simply means that it's accomplished the change in attitude it set out to effect. As the author points out, not a whole lot of people are pro-lechery now, or at least have the sense not to be so in public.

This, however, hardly means that vigorous opposition to sexual harassment was an illusory political idea, or any more illusory than any other political idea. (The author implies that it is, since the tulip phenomenon was a less real market than all the other markets, which are also unreal.) We all know that certain ideas have a greater moral rhetorical force than at others--yesterday it was "Communist," today it's "Islamist"--but that doesn't make them unreal, nor should it obscure the fact that there are smaller shifts in moderate stances over time (it used to be reasonable to support the estate tax, now that's somewhat inexplicably a far more contentious position) and we certainly don't regard those shifts as somehow erasing the idea's reality. If the position in the '90s represented a fever, then since it's at the same place in the spectrum as the position in the '50s, that must have been a fever too, and I hardly think it is. If you want to call it something, call it a purging.

That said, the fact is that this accusation had so little effect because it had a lot of things lessening its force: it took place far in the past, there was drinking involved, the touching was pretty minimal, we don't really like Naomi Wolff, etc. Were the situation different, there's no reason to assume that we wouldn't apply the same condemnation to the act that we would have ten years ago. Plus, charges of sexual harassment still carry a heavy weight in certain segments of the population--not a lot of self-righteous liberal types have successful blogs and media columns because they're humorless and boring, so you probably didn't get the chance to read their take on the matter.

So in sum: yes, the blase reaction to Wolff's article does reflect a moderating of stances on sexual harassment, but don't gloat about it; the pendulum is still very much on the left, no matter how much you might want it to be otherwise.