Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Conflict Resolution, Ben & Jerry style

Back in my Georgia Southern days, I served on a university-wide committee that sponsored speakers and entertainment on campus. We had a nice budget that allowed us to fund cheap, boring academic speakers as well as one high-priced glitzy performer a year. During my tenure on this committee we brought Michael Moore (who was 3 hours late for the gig!!!), Maya Angelou (who did a beautiful talk and then snubbed all the university powers-that-be by walking right past the green room and out the door to her limo after the talk), and Ben and Jerry.

For the Ben and Jerry evening, one of my jobs was to babysit Jerry before the show. A student from the campus rag came by to interview him and I pulled this one little tidbit from Jerry's generous answers. The student asked how they had dealt with disagreements over the years and kept their partnership going. Jerry's answer was that, from the beginning, they had agreed that whoever wanted or needed it more got to make the call.

As one who does not concede a position easily, I've found this operating theory useful. I've given in not because I thought I was (or was able to admit I was) wrong, but because I've been able to admit that it doesn't mean as much to me. And oftentimes, that has been a good thing.

Why I'm thinking of all this today is because I'm reading lots of legal and sociological discussions of street harassment: what it is, how men and women experience it, how society might deal with it (this is the lawyers' focus), and why men do it.

Common wisdom, at least through the 1980s, was that men engaged in what was generally considered the mildest form of street harassment, girl watching, because they were ignorant of how it was perceived by the women who were the object of their sexual evaluations. More recent studies, however, show that men have gotten the message that blatant "girl watching" is wrong, but they still do it - as a part of performing/reinforcing their masculinity and the privileges that come with it. In Beth Quinn's (2002) pithy phrasing, they are "ignoring" not "ignorant." In other words, educating men on women's experiences is not necessary. They already know and they have chosen not to care.

So we need a new approach and I am wondering if we can practice a little Ben and Jerry wisdom here: why don't we say that in our society, motivated/blatant looking and evaluative gendered/sexual comments from strangers in public space are issues that matter more to women -- women experience more negative effects from it than men experience positive effects, therefore women's perspective on it should prevail. Men do not have to argue/defend anymore that looking is "natural" or that evaluations and comments are all done in "fun," they just have to say, "this is obviously important to you, therefore I will stop because you want it more."


biscodo said...

Two words stick out like a sorre thumb: "blatant looking" Surely you can put yourself in the headspace of the variety of people that might read that, and imagine reactions.

'You mean to say that men shouldn't even be looking at women?'

At what point will their undesirable thoughts be forbidden as well?

(btw - I love the category tag "posts that will annoy people")

Zoe the Wonder Dog said...

Okay, this is obviously a Geertz-style conundrum: is it a wink or a blink?

By blatant, I mean staring, giving the once-over, that sort of thing. Looks that are more than taking in the urban spectacle or being aware of your surroundings so that you don't collide with anyone. Looks that communicate, "I am looking at YOU." It is staring... holding a look 'too long' (and yes, I know this is subjective!!!).

Since subjectivity is the crux of the biscuit here, we should stick with Geertz and attempt a "thick description" of this looking. What is the context of the looking? For many women, the "blatant looking" communicates all sorts of things built up over multiple experiences and a lifetime of cultural conditioning. It can say "you don't belong here," "you are less powerful/entitled/protected here," "behave, people are watching," etc. It says "you have been noticed" but then what does that mean and what will come next?

Being singled out on the street -- receiving more attention than that being given to others in the same general space can be quite threatening. Why am I being singled out? How far will it go? If he is comfortable staring at me, will he start talking at (verbally challenging or evaluating) me? get in my personal space? prevent me from continuing on my way? call more attention to me from others? physically hurt me? If I don't react the "right way" (and figuring that out is incredibly difficult), what will he do?

It is the snowballing of those types of questions that makes "looking" -- something that seems so innocuous to you -- so anxiety provoking for the 'objects' of the gaze.

On category tags: you are welcome to borrow my "posts that will annoy people." I'd like to adopt your "navel-gazing" tag. :)