If the events of recent decades have taught us one thing it is that no belief-system, political, philosophical or religious, has, on its own, the ability to inoculate men against abusing their power in order to gain sexual gratification for themselves. Liberal men and conservative men, religious men and secular men, cerebral men and men of action, each have provided examples of prolific sexual abuse usually, but not exclusively, against women.
It might be argued that these people are not ‘really’ what they assert themselves to be. They adopt a particular perspective primarily as a cloak to cover their depredations. While this may be so in a few cases I don’t find it a convincing argument in general. I have no reason, for example, to suppose that Harvey Weinstein is not genuinely convinced of the merits of liberalism as a philosophy or that whichever evangelical pastor is providing this month’s scandal doesn’t believe in Jesus as Saviour. What happens in such cases is that opinion collides with appetite and because appetite possesses more elemental force than a mere collection of ideas consciously formed and consciously adopted it succeeds in overriding it time after time after time.
Despite all the insights gained by psychology and neuroscience (not to mention the wisdom inherited from our ancestors) there is a dangerous reductionism apparent in public discourse about human actions and human motivations. People (apart from the person commenting) are regarded as being much less complex than they actually are and a single characteristic or action is seen to be so typical as to summarise their entire personality. Thus a good person is a consistently good person and a bad person is consistently wicked such that even their apparently good actions must of necessity be rooted in evil intentions.
Just a few moments spent in self-examination, however, will reveal that we ourselves are not consistent in our conduct or stable in our intentions and desires. Unless we regard ourselves as freaks honesty obliges us to admit that the same multi-layered complexity applies to others as applies to ourselves. So, what has this do do with belief-systems? Possessing as we do multiple different internal dimensions each of which plays a role in determining how we ultimately act it is surely over-simplistic or naive to assume that one single facet, an idea in the discursive mind, necessarily possesses the power of command over the rest of ourselves merely because it is the only part of ourselves of which we are fully aware.
As indicated above we possess appetites and these occupy a significant chunk of territory in our pre-conscious, subconscious and semi-conscious psyche. They grow stronger by being fed and weaker by being starved. The particular balance of appetites varies greatly from person to person, what powerfully moves one person will leave another indifferent, yet there is always something within us which will urge us on to feed it regardless of the cost and with a cool indifference to our particular belief systems. Because of the territory it occupies it is effectively immune to rational argument, that is, the conscious mind can plead and bargain with it but cannot when push comes to shove compel it, it is more common indeed for opinion to be submissive to appetite rather than the other way around.
This is not a counsel of despair. We are not doomed to be subject to our own irrational urges. Against them consciousness has to seek allies possessing equal elemental force and equally deeply entrenched within our psyches. Traditional wisdom suggests that there are two such forces, namely conscience and habit. As I suggested in an earlier post, (Conscientious Objection: a Liberal Principle) and contrary to current popular opinion, conscience is more than just another word for opinion. It is a deeply rooted conviction that certain things are always wrong and others are always right. Certainly it is linked to the realm of ideas and of thought but it does not necessarily proceed or draw its strength from those sources. There is a difference between dissenting from something, which opinion will lead us to do, and feeling aversion for something, which is what conscience will lead us to feel, and since the latter possesses more elemental force then it is likely to be of the most use in the battle against our appetites.
One of the late night comedy shows in the US recently suggested that the best solution for the problem of women being abused was for ‘men to stop acting like jerks.’ Admirable as this proposal undoubtedly is it leaves us with the problem of how to implement it. In the light of the foregoing I would suggest that the creation and sustenance of a well formed conscience is the way forward. This requires more than simply advocating a set of perfectly unobjectionable ideas about how men should accord women equality of status and respect. It means convincing boys that power exists for the purposes of service to others not for self-indulgence. The ancient Orthodox text the Philokalia has this line in it ‘when someone has the power to inflict harm yet refrains from doing so, out of reverence for God sparing those who are weaker, he is greatly rewarded after death.’ For our purposes it does not matter whether this assertion is true or not. What is significant is that conduct is related to the reality of death and our fear of dying two things which are at least subliminally present to our thoughts at all times. It is also related to our perception about transcendent reality. This means that there is a linkage formed, at least in the minds of Orthodox believers, between an opinion ‘refrain from abusing power’ and a visceral component of the human make-up, awareness of death and of eternity, which gives the opinion the added oomph necessary to impel it into the conscience and, crucially, to act as a counterweight to any appetitive urges to misuse power for personal gain.
So, the business of forming conscience has to involve this kind of union between idea, emotion, feeling and the essence of what it means to be human. Moreover it is not the matter of a single day or of a week long course. Religions tend to adopt a process of intensive formation in childhood reinforced by lifelong practices like daily prayer and reflection on key texts plus weekly communal gatherings for exhortation and reinforcement of doctrines combined with a judicious use of an eternal schema of rewards and punishments. Of course there are plenty of examples to show that this is not a fail-safe strategy. It fails plenty of times. But the truth is there is no fail-safe strategy. As long as the appetites exist abuse will exist all we can aim for is a minimisation of them through intensive socialisation of the largest number of men over the longest time. And the chances of success are the higher the more intensive the process is.
Habit is the other string to the bow. Actions frequently repeated have the capacity to become in themselves a force equal to that of nature. It is not enough for men or boys to simply refrain from bad actions, non-action is not very habit forming, they must positively perform good actions. Little things like giving up a seat to a lady or holding a door open for a girl have been cast aside as smacking of patriarchal oppressiveness. Perhaps that is true but they are also the last remnants of chivalry, a code of actions which impelled men to actively use their power in the service of others. By all means phase them out but if you replace them with nothing you will get less than nothing in return, you will get energy without purpose or direction ready to be used in the service of appetite. What is needed is a programme of actions which can be performed daily from an early age which are so frequent and so deeply embedded in daily life that they become second nature. In the grip of such habits certain types of actions become inconceivable and thus unperformable. Again, not a fail-safe but a reinforcement which will minimise the number of abusers.
In bringing about these two things, well-formed consciences and unbreakable good habits, the State and the media can only play at best an auxiliary role. They are good as external agents in promoting belief systems but they lack one essential factor which is the third necessary element alongside conscience and habit. That factor is enthusiasm. Transforming a society so thoroughly that pervasive patterns of behaviour are all but eliminated can only be produced through the enthusiastic participation of individual role models in every family, workplace, school and neighbourhood. These will voluntarily use the opportunities of both work and leisure time to evangelise for their ideas. Only a sub-State non-governmental organisation possessed of a big idea whose time is right can succeed in such an endeavour. The only questions that remain are what is this idea, where can we find it, and how can we enthuse people with it?
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The picture of Harvey Weinstein and Hilary Clinton is credited to Larry Busacca/Getty Images by CNN