Thursday, 30 April 2015

How political correctness saved civilization

Last week, a woman who works as a waitress at an Auckland café told the left-wing Daily Blog that whenever Prime Minister John Key patronized her place of work he would come up behind her and pull her hair, and he had laughed off her discomfort until her manager backed her up, after which he presented her with two bottles of wine as an apology, apparently under the misapprehension that pulling someone’s hair when they don’t want you to constitutes some kind of relationship. A reporter from the NZ Herald rang her posing as the café company’s PR department, and the following day her name was published nationwide without her consent. I guess they were betting that, being young, female, a worker, a Daily Blog follower, and willing to call out harassment by a powerful person, her political views would be significantly leftward of the Prime Minister’s. This proved to be the case, and so they’ve been able to frame the whole thing as a politically-motivated smear campaign.

I would just like to point out, before we go any further, that there’s been a case recently where someone identifiable only as “a prominent New Zealander” has been caught sexually assaulting underage girls. He – the perpetrator, I think this needs emphasis – has been granted permanent name suppression, contrary to the wishes of his victims and their families. That means I can’t spell out his connection to the Prime Minister here, nor link you to someone who can. But Google around the Australian news sites and you should find him. New Zealand is now a place where sexual perpetrators get more legal protection than their victims, if they happen to have government connections.

Now a friend of a friend wrote a Note on Facebook explaining exactly what the problem is with the Prime Minister’s behaviour; it’s here, with permissions set to Public, so if you have a Facebook account you should be able to read it. I have little to add to what he says in the Note, but I do have a response to make to the person who (at the time I read it) was the most prolific commenter. His name is Mike, and his first paragraph should give you the flavour of what’s to come.

As one of the psalms has it: “I have been young, and now I am old.” In other words, I’ve been through quite a few social changes in my lifetime. I remember a time when there were hardly any murders in NZ: it was big news if someone killed someone else. I remember the time before the sexual revolution, when morals in general were still strong amongst the community. It was a time when one-night stands weren’t common, when people didn’t have serial partners, and when women were in general respected. Of course sex outside marriage still happened, sometimes with consequences, sometimes not. That’s part of life.

Mike is wrong. Well, mostly – we’ll get to that in a bit. He appears to be talking about the 1950s, in which case he’s using a definition of “respected” that I don’t recognise. Note the gratuitous Bible reference; I think I understand what “old” means without the help of the Psalms, thank you. Note the assumption that when people didn’t admit to having one-night stands it was because they weren’t having them. (I remember, as an adolescent, finding it unbelievable that people had sex in the Middle Ages, because it was never mentioned in the mediaeval fantasies I’d read – that reading having of course been carefully vetted by my parents.) Here’s a snippet of dialogue written by someone who was middle-aged at the time Mike is nostalging about, someone whose religious and political views – and degree of “respect”, 1950s sense, for women – Mike might I think if anything find a little too conservative. If you go clicking the link, be warned that it contains a very 1950s interpretation of feminism.

“Then there’s the new ethics, forbye.”
“Oh, stow it, you old rascal. What is new there either? Who ever tried to live clean except a minority who had a religion or were in love? They’ll try it still on Mars, as they did on Earth. As for the majority, did they ever hesitate to take their pleasures wherever they could get them? The ladies of the profession know better. Did you ever see a port or a garrison town without plenty of brothels?...”
C. S. Lewis, “Ministering Angels”, The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction p. 17

So I think the “sexual revolution” which Mike is about to complain about was more a revolution of honesty than of conduct.

And then the sexual revolution came along, and was supposed to make people “free” of all the terrible restrictions a moral society had “imposed”. Of course it just made things worse: divorces galore, co-habitation almost the norm, children split between parents. And young people being given the idea that sex was something you got on and did because with the pill there were no consequences. Yeah, right, as the Tui people so aptly put it.

Tui, for non-New-Zealand readers, is a beer brand whose ads consist of implausible statements accompanied by the phrase “Yeah right.” I don’t know if Mike will read this, but if he does: sorry, Mike, this is hilarious. Specifically, the bit about “co-habitation” being almost – almost, dear reader, let me cushion the awful blow as much as I can – almost the norm. “Co-habitation” of course means pretty much “marriage, only without the wedding”. I hate to break it to you, Mike, but co-habitation is the norm and has been all my life. There is a small minority of the population that kind of tut-tuts over it, but speaking as a co-habitator myself with family in that small minority, I think it’s one of those things where everyone talks like they disapprove of it because they think the rest of the group disapproves of it. Monogamous commitment works for me; I can even think of vaguely plausible reasons why it might be a good default option for society in general. But there is no plausible reason whatever why the wedding ceremony per se should be the one thing that turns evil sex into moral sex. (All you have to do to prove me wrong is come up with one.)

What it did was make young men less respectful than ever of young women, and quite honestly, it made young women less respectful of themselves. As a result we have a culture in which men expect to get sex, and when they’re not offered it they will “make it happen”. We have girls going out on a Friday/Saturday night to get plastered, something that seems to me to be a strange thing when it so often leads them to have no idea what they’re doing. No wonder rape convictions are so hard to pin down: often neither of the parties has a clue as to what actually happened, whether there was consent or not. The men are often just as drunk as the girls.

OK, I’m not laughing any more. First, if someone is so drunk they “have no idea what they’re doing”, then by definition there is no consent. Second, if both parties are so drunk they have no idea what they’re doing, then I suppose they might sort of fall over onto each other but nothing more than that is going to happen. When someone is passed-out drunk and gets raped, it’s because someone else has made the conscious decision to rape them, and if that someone else claims otherwise afterwards they are lying, not clueless. Rape convictions are hard to pin down because juries and judges believe (white) men’s lies. And the “young women today have no self-respect” thing is one prominent item in that particular suite of lies.

What does all this have to do with the John Key / waitress story? It seems to me that these incidents in an Auckland cafe, which may have been playful on one person’s part initially (playfulness that appears to have gone on too long) – and irritation and eventually anger on another’s part – have become the basis for NZ to go into overdrive about bullying, and sexism, and inappropriate touching and rape culture and anything else we can throw in the mix.

So what if it was “playful”? It was the waitress’s hair being played with, not his. What matters is how she felt about it, not how he felt about it. If there was a question of it being an accident, then his state of mind might be relevant. If hair-pulling was an expected friendly greeting between workers and customers in our culture, then his state of mind might be relevant. If he had been fed drugs without his knowledge or consent that interfered with his social perceptions, then his state of mind might be relevant. None of these things is the case. He may well have successfully kidded himself that she was OK with it; the human capacity for self-deception is boundless. But if self-deception were a defence, no-one would ever be guilty of anything. The only possible tiny shred of an excuse Key has is that he may have genuinely believed society’s big lie that women who say “no” to men don’t really mean it.

But much of the awfulness of NZ society at present goes back to the ’60s, when free love was touted by the new generation (supposedly). It doesn’t have much to do with some ill-considered playfulness on the PM’s part. We’re focusing on this one incident, when in fact our problems stem from much further back.

Here’s where we get to the bit about Mike being only mostly wrong. Mike’s memory of the rarity of murder in the 1950s is merely exaggerated, not false. In New Zealand as elsewhere, the rate of violent crime was lower in the 1950s than it has been since. I went and found a website that tots up the total number of murders committed in each of the last six decades in New Zealand. The trend is clearly upwards. However, to find the murder rate, we have to compare it against population. That’s important, because to assess the impact of violent crime fairly we need to count the number of people it doesn’t affect as well as the number of people it does affect. The homicide rate for a given time and place represents a randomly chosen person’s approximate chance of getting killed. Well, population data since 1951 (rounded to the nearest 10,000 people) is available on a spreadsheet at Statistics New Zealand. Since I only have murder figures for whole decades, I’ve taken the mid-decade census as an indication of the rough average population across the decade. With those caveats, this is what’s happened:

I don’t know whether or not the “murders” counted on that website include homicides where the eventual conviction was for manslaughter rather than murder. I do know, having taken Law notes a couple of years ago, that there has not been any change to New Zealand homicide law in the intervening time that would make an increased rate of manslaughter convictions balance out the drop-off in murders. This graph captures something real. I haven’t done anything to the data, by the way, just pulled it off the websites and stuck it in Excel, but this is pretty much what I expected to find. It fits the bigger picture laid out in painstaking detail by Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature.

Across the Western world, violent crime since the ’50s has emulated the Grand Old Duke of York and (a) marched up to the top of a hill, then (b) marched down again. The plateau, consistently across most Western countries, occurred in the mid-’80s to mid-’90s – the exact years (I’d just like to point out) when I was a child walking to school by myself. New Zealand’s progress along the downward slope actually appears less marked than that of the United States, which is currently almost back to 1950s levels. I blame socioeconomic inequality for that. Inequality is known to pump up violent crime in a society, much more so than poverty as such, and while America is more unequal than New Zealand, New Zealand since the ’50s has become unequal much faster than America has.

Notice I keep saying “since the ’50s”. That’s the one major misleading feature of this graph. If you extrapolate backwards from the left-hand end of the curve, you’ll predict that the ’40s had less homicide than the ’50s and the ’30s less still, until you get back to the Garden of Eden. Pinker’s data shows that this is the opposite of the case. Since the Middle Ages the trend of homicides and other violent crimes in Western societies has been downward. Not smoothly or steadily downward, of course. There are occasional upticks in the slopes, and one of them just happened to occur in the 1960s and ’70s. The 1950s weren’t just the most crime-free decade in living memory; they were the most crime-free decade in human history. We’ll come back to this.

And all the people with beams in their own eyes have come out against someone with a speck in his. Those who don’t like Key in the first place have made it an excuse to denigrate anything and everything he’s done as well as demeaning his person.
Len Brown’s behaviour a year or so ago was much more offensive, I feel: it was done in secret, it was kept hidden from his family, it was done in an inappropriate place. (The woman’s role in that situation was ambiguous, however, and different altogether to the waitress in Auckland.)
The Roast Busters situation was also far more offensive.

Later on in the conversation (the comment I’m picking apart here is only one of several of similar length) Mike scolds the young waitress for not understanding “forgiveness”. Meanwhile he himself blames everything wrong in society on people having consensual sex in contexts he disapproves of. What was that about beams and specks, again, Mike? For my international readers: Len Brown, mayor of Auckland, got caught having an affair with an advisory board member in 2013, but was reelected anyway; the Roast Busters are a group of teenage boys who raped several girls at parties also in 2013 and have still not been charged with any crime, and it is of course a pure coincidence that one of them is the son of a high-ranking police officer. Brown betrayed the trust of his wife and family, and the Roast Busters are rapists. I’m not excusing either of them. But it’s highly telling that, to Mike, what matters is not what harm Key, Brown, or the Roast Busters did to other people, but how “offensive” their behaviour was by some unspecified standard.

I’m probably not writing as clearly as I’d like here – not as vehemently as you’ve done, James. But I have deep concerns for our society – have had for many years. The JK/waitress thing is so trivial by comparison with much worse things that we continue to allow day after day because our society has primarily lost its moral compass. We get all in a fuss about touching someone yet continue to promote drunkenness, free sex, vile language, pornography, and the like. We dwell on the devilish and forget the Godly. Basically NZ society is reaping what it’s sown, and all the liberal blathering about human “rights” and so on are just spitting in the wind. Until we face up to our sinfulness we’ll continue to rage at each other and achieve nothing.

Now. What went wrong in the 1960s? Mike’s answer, that people abandoned Christian sexual standards, became popular among Christians at the time for obvious reasons, to the point that by the time things started going right again in the 1990s it was pretty much an article of faith. In fact, of course, only a minority of people ever adhered to Christian sexual standards in the first place, and as we’ve seen, pre-1960s Christian writers knew that perfectly well. But it is true that people abandoned the pretence of propriety en masse in the ’60s. Dozens of related cultural changes happened at the same time. Media standards on graphic violence, sex, and offensive language were suddenly relaxed. Rebels became heroes; obedience to authority ceased to be a virtue. So did self-control, restraint, and courtesy.

Up until the 1990s, there was some excuse for picking any one of those changes that you happened not to like and proclaiming that as the cause of the violent-crime surge. Not any more. Since the surge peaked in the 1990s, we can narrow it down to the cultural trends that went into reverse around that time. Casual sex did not, so that can’t be it. Violence in the media did not, so that can’t be it. Admiration of rebels did not, so that can’t be it. What did happen in the ’90s is that we once again began to expect people to exercise restraint in their language and behaviour towards one another. Today, of course, the language that we rebuke is not sex talk or swearing but sexism, racism, and other forms of discrimination; the sexual acts that we frown upon are not those between unmarried people but those which one party doesn’t want. The new sensibility got a name, when it began to appear, from the people who didn’t like it: political correctness.

Pinker doesn’t just document these changes, he suggests causes for them and compiles evidence for his suggestions. Self-control proves to be a major brake on aggression, even when it’s not primarily aggression that you’re trying to put brakes on. The part of the frontal lobes of the brain that exerts self-control works like a muscle: sustained heavy exercise over a short time fatigues it, but repeated heavy exercise over a long time strengthens it. A culture of restraint in anything will therefore make a society safer. So it’s entirely plausible that the starchiness of the ’50s helped bring crime down. But the exact same principle predicts that what Mike calls “getting all in a fuss about touching someone” will also help bring crime down, and the figures confirm this prediction. Which of the two ethics is preferable on other grounds is another question (spoiler: I’ve got a pretty strong opinion about the answer). If the continuing decline of violence is “New Zealand reaping what it’s sown”, then we must have got hold of some pretty good seed. Godliness? You can keep it.

But to make the new culture work we have to be ready to hold people to account, especially the powerful. If people are to be free from exploitation and victimization, people have to be restrained from exploiting and victimizing each other. Freedom of speech doesn’t just mean not telling people what they can’t say, it means preventing people from silencing others by intimidation or harassment. No-one, not even the leader of a government, has the right to violate another person’s bodily autonomy. If that means a whole lot of men have to start policing their own conduct towards women – good.

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