“Reasonable” People

(Yes, you might need to blink and look again at these headlines.  They’re from The New York Times, not The Onion or McSweeney’s.)

It’s like a terrible joke.  How many movie stars does it take for someone to believe they were sexually harassed and assaulted?  Or, maybe, how many USA gymnasts does it take?  We all know the possible answers:  All of them.  Way too many.  Or, don’t worry they will only be believed for a second until the pendulum swings back to establishing their attacker(s) as credible, measured, reasonable.

Just imagine how many unknown women of far fewer means it takes to be believed.  I don’t think mathematics has yet created the beyond-infinity number (right?), but this question might point us all in that direction.

Over these past few weeks, I have been thinking about an article I wrote a couple of years ago that cited Donna Haraway (*see this 1988 article, for example) and Evelyn Fox-Keller (*really interesting 2014 interview here) on the Enlightenment-generated image of the scientist—that 18th-century white man, in a white coat, working in a white lab with other white-coated assistants, doing white experiments and coming to white conclusions.  This scientist—the quintessence of light, illustration, illumination, reason—would become almost invisible as the reasoned results of his lab were disseminated and taken as true, as objectively generated and disseminated.  Haraway and Fox-Keller talk about women entering the lab as a “germ,” the other.  Their results would be marked by their otherness and thus doubted, disbelieved, considered contaminated.  The privilege of being seen as objective and reasonable, practically invisible in the extreme objectivity of it all, contrasts sharply with the constant existence as the one who is supposed to assimilate, or just can’t assimilate, or won’t assimilate, or who didn’t assimilate well enough—a lifelong germ invading the space of the supposedly “reasonable.”

The Society for Human Resource Management website tell us: “In workplace harassment situations, the perspective of a “reasonable person” is one aspect of the criteria used to determine whether a work environment is hostile. The reasonable person standard aims to avoid the potential for parties to claim they suffered harassment when most people would not find such instances offensive if they themselves were the subject of such acts.”  As I have stated throughout the Gender Shrapnel Blog (for example, here), the law and its applications build on precedent and, therefore, decades, even centuries, can pass before we undo implicit and explicit racism and sexism embedded in our laws.  The “reasonable person” standard established in Equal Employment Opportunity law still has not been examined thoroughly enough to measure how much harassment white male legislators over the centuries have deemed is “reasonable” for someone to accept.

In a talk at Washington and Lee last week, Devon Carbado brilliantly linked the “reasonable person” standard to vulnerability to police violence.  This 2016 article by Carbado treats thoroughly the “Reasonableness Doctrine” as it applies to the Fourth Amendment, “reasonable search and seizure,” and escalating interactions with the police imposed on African Americans.  Carbado provides a type of flow chart, with detailed examples, of how “traffic stops function as gateways to more intrusive searches and seizures” (151). Carbado takes issue with the term “reasonable” to demonstrate that it is imbued with the racism and sexism that our laws and law enforcement systems have inherited through the centuries.  He cites Crenshaw on the “say her name” campaign to understand police violence specifically against black women. This “reasonable person” standard for discrimination, harassment, and retaliation is embedded in Title VII and Title IX law.  In a nutshell, the more often the “reasonable” standard is invoked against people of color and women, the more it naturalizes the stop-and-frisk phenomenon, which I see as both literal (actual police stops of African Americans, in incredibly disproportionate numbers) and metaphorical (allusion to real touching—sexual harassment, discrimination, retaliation, and assault in all types of workplaces, including the education workplace).  Let’s not forget, Republican candidate from Missouri Courtland Sykes just a few days ago said that radical feminism has “a crazed definition of modern womanhood,” and he added that, “They made it up to suit their own nasty, snake-filled heads.”  (*See this Gender Shrapnel Blog post, “Mary Beard’s Manifesto,” to understand more about retrograde obsession with the head of Medusa.)  We have to improve our ability to question and name these unreasonable candidates so easily masquerading these days as reasonable.  (Don’t make me bring up Roy Moore to re-make this point.)

160 women testified that Larry Nassar sexually assaulted them.  Some of the women were as young as six years old when Nassar committed such felonies.  These assaults happened over decades, permeating just about every corner of USA Gymnastics and, quite apparently, Michigan State University.  The world is ready to believe in the integrity of a single male doctor before it is prepared to believe hundreds of women and girls with an entirely credible claim.  Nassar’s non-apology statement and self-defensive testimony combine to re-harass and re-assault the 160 women who had already, miraculously, survived his abuse.  Nassar’s most salient statement, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.  It is just a complete nightmare,” serves to do what so many non-apology defenses have done in so many others of these recent cases—to deny wrongdoing, cast doubt on those who have filed suit, assert some kind of moral high ground, and minimize the gravity of the actual crimes committed.  Nassar believes himself to be the objective white man in the white coat in the white laboratory.

The New York Times reported on January 20, 2018, that Pennsylvania Republican Representative Patrick Meehan had settled his own sexual misconduct case using taxpayer money.  Ah, yes, the highly reasonable Meehan was even a member of the House Ethics Committee, which has been seeking solutions to what the article rightly calls “secretive congressional processes for handling such complaints, which advocates say are slanted to favor abusers, allowing them to use the vast resources of the federal government to intimidate, isolate, and silence their victims.”  The fact that it took Meehan five more days to realize the jig was up—that the woman whom he insisted was his “complete partner” did not see the situation in the same light and that he would not be a viable candidate for re-election—speaks to the extent to which he, and probably many people around him for decades, still bought into his “reasonable,” objective, rational character.  United States culture reveals a tendency to bend over backwards to forgive felonious men and a leaning forward to blame victims.  One glance at the second headline in the image above reinforces that it’s not just the United States.  The person considered the most progressive leader of one of the most powerful religions in the world practices the same “reasonable” person standard: defend the criminal and blame the victim.  This is as tiresome as it is dangerous.

(A book available at a local pub.  Yes, please.)