I’ve been trying to find a way in to writing about the rash of Hollywood headlines, and sexual harassment more generally, and may have finally found one. Don’t think I wasn’t tempted to take Sarah Silverman up on her question–the key question, as far as I can tell, but also too important of one to broach in haste, or before we’ve all had a little longer to absorb the gravity and breadth of the situation.

That is, it feels like any pronouncements at this point, theological or otherwise, would be premature if not insensitive, possibly even a way of avoiding the facts on the ground. Which isn’t to imply a hesitancy about grace, or introduce some fresh stipulation or exception to the Word of Life, more to acknowledge that the merciful move, at least for those of us with a Y chromosome (who are not pastors to the victims and/or perpetrators), might be to just sit with the reality for now, and listen as more stories emerge. Which they undoubtedly will.

What prompted me to venture a post was Paul Bloom’s article in the New Yorker on “The Root of All Cruelty?” in which the Against Empathy author challenges the notion that harassment and assault necessitates the dehumanization of ‘the other’. Bloom cautions against embracing such a widespread assumption as gospel, bringing attention instead to the compelling arguments of philosopher Kate Manne. Before he gets there, though, he makes an observation about the sad ubiquity of dehumanization:

Google your favorite despised human group—Jews, blacks, Arabs, gays, and so on—along with words like “vermin,” “roaches,” or “animals,” and it will all come spilling out. Some of this rhetoric is seen as inappropriate for mainstream discourse. But wait long enough and you’ll hear the word “animals” used even by respectable people, referring to terrorists, or to Israelis or Palestinians, or to undocumented immigrants, or to deporters of undocumented immigrants. Such rhetoric shows up in the speech of white supremacists—but also when the rest of us talk about white supremacists…

Early psychological research on dehumanization looked at what made the Nazis different from the rest of us. But psychologists now talk about the ubiquity of dehumanization…: “Outraged members of the public call sex offenders animals. Psychopaths treat victims merely as means to their vicious ends. The poor are mocked as libidinous dolts. Passersby look through homeless people as if they were transparent obstacles. Dementia sufferers are represented in the media as shuffling zombies.”

Got it. Dehumanization breeds dehumanization. The more we despise something, the more risk we run of becoming that thing. Self-righteousness is a drug that inhibits compassion, no question. As Miroslav Volf writes, “Forgiveness flounders because I exclude the enemy from the community of humans even as I exclude myself from the community of sinners.”

Bloom, however, wants to take us down a different road. He suggests that we employ dehumanizing language and behavior in order to appeal to (rather than repudiate) another’s humanity:

To believe that [dehumanizing] taunts are effective is to assume that their targets would be ashamed to be thought of that way—which implies that, at some level, you think of them as people after all… The sadism of treating human beings like vermin lies precisely in the recognition that they are not.

In other words, dehumanizing labor like scrubbing toilets wouldn’t be a punishment if we actually believed the person to whom we’ve assigned it to be less-than-human. I’m not sure I’d buy this as a blanket assessment, but the point stands. In keeping with Bloom’s book, and our previous post on accidental killers, you almost wonder if the dehumanization thesis is a way of minimizing the sin involved here, diminishing it under the auspices of ‘confusion’, making it thereby more manageable and less in need of, well, expiation and blood atonement.

So what does this have to do with sexual harassment and assault? He continues:

In many instances, violence is neither a cold-blooded solution to a problem nor a failure of inhibition; most of all, it doesn’t entail a blindness to moral considerations. On the contrary, morality is often a motivating force: “People are impelled to violence when they feel that to regulate certain social relationships, imposing suffering or death is necessary, natural, legitimate, desirable, condoned, admired, and ethically gratifying.” Obvious examples include suicide bombings, honor killings, and the torture of prisoners during war, but Fiske and Rai extend the list to gang fights and violence toward intimate partners…

In the fiercely argued and timely study “Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny” (Oxford), the philosopher Kate Manne makes a consonant argument about sexual violence. “The idea of rapists as monsters exonerates by caricature,” she writes, urging us to recognize “the banality of misogyny,” the disturbing possibility that “people may know full well that those they treat in brutally degrading and inhuman ways are fellow human beings, underneath a more or less thin veneer of false consciousness.” In misogyny, she argues, “often, it’s not a sense of women’s humanity that is lacking. Her humanity is precisely the problem.”

Men, she proposes, have come to expect certain things from women—attention, admiration, sympathy, solace, and, of course, sex and love. Misogyny is the mind-set that polices and enforces these goals; it’s the “law enforcement branch” of the patriarchy. The most obvious example of this attitude is the punishing of “bad women,” where being bad means failing to give men what they want…

Woah. What Manne seems to be saying is that sexual violence might not be linked (exclusively) to objectification/dehumanization so much as inflated expectation, or you might say, anthropology. A rage rooted in the failure of the other to meet our (false) expectations and (selfish) demands. This takes the whole “expectation is a planned resentment” AA-ism to an uncomfortable extreme. Power, in this respect, is what defines who feels entitled to do the expecting–and who feels obliged to fulfill those expectations.

Again, Manne’s theory cannot account for the headlines full-stop, but it certainly deserves a hearing, especially among those who claim ‘the law kills’. Because the implications reach far beyond the current darkness and may even serve to unwind (some of) the defensiveness:

…the mechanisms [Manne] identifies [aren’t] confined to misogyny. The aggressions licensed by moral entitlement, the veneer of bad faith: those things are evident in a wide range of phenomena…

When we’re dealing with another person as a person, we can’t help experiencing such attitudes as admiration and gratitude, resentment and blame. You generally don’t feel this way toward rocks or rodents. Acknowledging the humanity of another, then, has its risks, and these are neatly summarized by Manne, who notes that seeing someone as a person makes it possible for that person to be a true friend or beloved spouse, but it also makes it possible for people to be “an intelligible rival, enemy, usurper, insubordinate, betrayer, etc.”…

The limitations of the dehumanization thesis are hardly good news. There has always been something optimistic about the idea that our worst acts of inhumanity are based on confusion. It suggests that we could make the world better simply by having a clearer grasp of reality—by deactivating those brain implants, or their ideological equivalent. The truth may be harder to accept: that our best and our worst tendencies arise precisely from seeing others as human.

He’s right. This is not good news. Awareness and clarity may help matters, but they will not save us. Our mistreatment of one another–and men’s mistreatment of women in particular—has deeper roots than confusion, willful or otherwise. Moreover, the expectation that we relinquish our expectations of one another will meet with both frustration and reaction. Because the problem is not the law, and the solution not some better iteration of it. The problem is sin and, if I may be so bold, the devil.

So I don’t have some pithy Gospel denouement to wrap this one up in a bow, or some reminder about the totality of divine propitiation and Christ as the end of the law, beautiful and true as those things may be. Right now all I’ve got is what everyone else ‘under the sun’ has: thoughts and prayers. Thoughts like the ones above–which may be a worthwhile form of ‘processing’ or may just add to the noise and division and conceptualization of all-too-real pain. I don’t know. Hopefully God can use them either way.

For the time being, I’ll put more stock in prayers–prayers for the same hope (and from the same source) that Abraham Lincoln pointed to in a similarly divisive time:

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things [freedom, prosperity, life]. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

Amen. And Happy Thanksgiving. We’ll be back online on Monday.