Saturday, 18 April 2009

A's moral dilemma

My partner, A, was driving with the kids to the video store. Our neighbourhood is a bit mixed - there are gangs and violence in parts of it - so A was quite concerned when he saw a young teenage girl walking by herself in the dark.

A's concern was heightened by the recent rape of a 13 year old girl in Auckland - and that fact that, when this girl asked a member of the public for help, she was turned away. We have a strong ethical principle in our family: if someone needs help, or looks like they might, we intervene (so long as we won't cause more harm, to others or ourselves, by doing so). Nine times out of ten, you just look like an over-anxious dick - but that other one time, you might just be the difference between something bad happening or not. And it's better to look like a dick, we reckon, than have to reproach yourself because you didn't give help to someone who needed it. This may look like a strange creed - it's led to us breaking up fights, having a squabble with skinheads, and, in one bizarre case, me doing point duty until the Police arrived! - but hey, that's the kind of people we are.

So A considered offering the lone teenage girl a ride home. In the provincial areas he and I grew up with, this wasn't a strange thing to do at all (it's a reflection of community that may, sadly, be a thing of the past). He knew that the girl probably wouldn't accept, but he initially thought it was right to make the offer anyway. But then he pondered a bit further: maybe by offering a lift, he would actually just scare the girl, leaving her worse off than if he'd done nothing and let her take her chances walking in the dark.

When I intervene in situations that concern me, I feel I can do it more safely than my partner - because I'm a woman, I don't scare people, and my intervention won't be taken as a sign of aggression, so I feel less likely to be harmed. Because men are the perpetrators of sexual violence, a man's attempt to show concern or intervene may cause fear, or some other negative reaction. There's plenty men can and should do in their everyday lives to resist violence against women. But, in a situation of immediate danger - whether that danger is great, small, or only a possibility - it's hard for a man to show compassion or concern without being perceived as a great, small or possible psycho.

There's a vicious circle going on here. Because men are responsible for most domestic and sexual violence, we think of the tendency to violence as a male characteristic. (The most horrific aspect of the Tony Veitch case is the way it has fed this belief, implying that some situations are so irritating that it's understandable when men 'lash out'. I can't think of any situation in which the public would sympathise with a woman who broke someone's spine.) How can we develop a cultural idea of masculinity which both recognises that men are primarily responsible for violence (and why this is), while also recognising that men aren't destined to be violent. As long as we believe that violence is somehow inherent in (at least some) men, we give a level of cultural permission to male violence.

I would probably have offered the girl a lift. Figuring he might do more harm than good, A kept on driving. It's not that he cares less about sexual violence against women than I do (the incident's been bugging him ever since). It's just that, in a society which justifies and normalises a degree of violence from men, the bloke who challenges this with a 'womanish' gesture of concern may look weird at best, and threatening at worst. The same gesture which suggests concern when it comes from a woman seems suspicious when made by a man.

If we make cultural excuses for men's violence we'll get men's violence, we'll imply that men committed to non-violence and caring are slightly odd, and we'll have good reason to be afraid of men, well-intentioned or otherwise. Who could blame a lone teenage girl for being scared of a strange man, speaking to her from his car in the dark?

18 comments:

Julie said...

Thanks for this post. Did A think that the presence of the kids might make him less scary?

shop girl said...

I think there's a difference between a man alone in a car offering someone a lift, and a man in a car with kids offering someone a lift. The latter seems much less threatening to me, though I might still hesitate.

I've found myself in the opposite position a few times, where I've chosen not to offer lifts to men I don't know, for fear of creating an unsafe situation for myself, which is frustrating when what I want is that sense of community you get from people interacting and doing favours for those around them.

Anna said...

Yes, he did, but decided he was still too scary. That's a whole other interesting issue in itself...

libertyscott said...

Interesting. I know I've been conscious getting off a bus in the evening and walking behind women on a quiet street to just slow down, let them be more paces ahead - just so they don't fear the steps of a stranger behind them.

I know in the evenings I wouldn't stop to help any young girl who wasn't clearly calling for help - who knows who would be watching, taking a number plate - it's appalling stereotyping to be on the receiving end of, but rational from a personal safety point of view for young women to be cautious.

Anna said...

Simul-post - I've had the same thing, Shop Girl, of wanting to help people who look scary. You're supposed to trust your intuition in these matters - but when does intuition give way to prejudice (ie against poor-looking people of the wrong skin colour?).

The thing about that bothers me about the kids being present is that the gesture (ie wanting to help someone) is the same, whether the kids are there or not. The presence of the kids is one 'signal' a woman might read to gauge whether a man's safe - but the whole idea of reading these 'signals' (the biggest one being gender) is a problem for me. It's a short-cut involving assumptions we have about who is or isn't violent, and as domestic violence shows, people who have kids aren't necessarily safe.

shop girl said...

Anna,

when does intuition give way to prejudiceYes, exactly. And sometimes it's not even that they look scary, so much as that they're male and I don't feel up to taking the risk. Which is maybe my intuition speaking, I don't know.

people who have kids aren't necessarily safeNo, but I'd hope they'd be safer in the presence of those kids. But you're right -- nothing is certain. (But then, women can be violent and dangerous, and yet we're more likely to trust them.)

Lex said...

Yeah, it's funny. I find that often, the people who look the scariest are in fact less dangerous than those who look completely 'normal'.

I am also of the school of offering my assistance where I can. On a number of occasions, I have seen small children wandering a shop or a street alone, with no sign of a parent or caregiver. I will usually scope out the situation, keep an eye on the child for a wee while, until I can assert that they are in fact alone, then I'll talk to them, find out where Mum is, and if the child doesn't know, I'll take them to an info desk or just hang and play with them for a while until the caregiver surfaces.

A couple of years ago I was in Kmart with my Dad, a man of the highest integrity, when I noticed a small girl marching around the electronics section by herself. I executed usual MO, kept an eye on her and finally went and asked her where her mum was. She was only wee, so attention span and communicative ability were noth at a premium. Luckily I'm also quite patient. Finally, I went to the info desk and asked them to call out on the PA for the mum. The girl at the counter looked at me in a confused manner and stood for couple of minutes looking like a dog with an extra leg. Finally she walked off to where the PA mic was. Before she put a call out (if she was even going to - I suspect she went off to escape the weird woman who gave a crap about a lone three year old at large in a department store and insisted that she take some responsibility for helping out and fostering community spirit etc etc), the mum turned up, not a worry in the world, tendered a vague acknowledgement that a stranger had been sitting her child for about 15 minutes, then wandered off with the girl.

A couple of points:
1. Luckily for this mum (and others) I am not a dodgy bastard. However, it would have been just as easy for some opportunistic ne'er-do-well to take advantage of the situation. Scary shit.

2. The other thing that really ripped me about this was the fact that, out of the same fear mentioned above, my Dad (bar none the kindest, most highly principled and all round good egg-ish type dude I know) was hesitant to involve himself in the intervention. He said aftwerwards that he was worried that it might look as though he was some dodgy old man being, er, dodgy. It was the first time I considered this issue, as being a woman, I am not subject to the same suspicion about my motives for offering help if it might be needed.

An interesting double-bind.

Anonymous said...

Who'd want to be seen as some dodgy creep? I wouldn't. The last time I saw a crying lost little girl at a shopping centre, I hung around a non-threatening distance away just to make sure she was safe until somebody stopped to help (many were simply walking past her). I noticed about three other men doing much the same as me.. obviously concerned, but well aware that they couldn't approach the girl.

[I'm male, and Indian-looking, and as I understand it Indian men have a reputation for being particularly sleazy]

Anna said...

Anon, that is so awful. I've known quite a few men who want to be able to help but have anxieties about being perceived as sleazy/weird/pervy etc - and these stereotypes are definitely compounded by things like race, how wealthy or otherwise you look, and so on.

I've never really thought that much about what it's like to be treated as potentially threatening because of your physical appearance. I don't want to go too far down the road of feeling sorry for men as victims of patriarchy (plenty of men use the ability to appear threatening to their advantage, after all), but it creates a real trap for those men who want to move beyond that. And it's not a matter of blaming the people (usually women) who feel scared - statistically, at least, women have more reason to fear violence from men than from other women, and you do what you feel you have to to stay safe. It can become a self-fulfilling prophecy...

Anonymous said...

I didn't think it was so awful, I thought it was unfortunate, but to me at least, acceptable. I'm as guilty as anyone else of viewing men with more suspicion.

George said...

libertyscott, I do exactly the same thing. I walk slower, cross onto the opposite side of the road.

I hate the fact that women fear male violence - and I hate that this fear is a real one.

Placebogirl said...

I found this post interesting. One night when my (male) partner and I saw a young woman running home from her late night job, and I said to him that we should stop and make sure she was alright (because from a moving car, a young woman running is a young woman running, and therefore someone to ask if they are in need of assistance) he deliberately drove past her and did a u-turn so that when we approached her, it would be me that she saw first, and me who offered her help and not him. It had never occurred to me before that this is a problem for men.

Having said that, this is a piece of the patriarchy that hurts women just as much as it hurts men...how much better off would women be if men COULD feel comfortable in offering help, if they thought women needed it?

George said...

I should clarify that the caution isn't out of concern for my own wellbeing, but that I don't want to make anyone else's life more traumatic.

I won't stop a car at night to offer assistance unless I have a female passenger in the front seat for the same reason.

As always, this situation comes down to making spaces safer, restoring trust and reducing real risks, and only then can the perceptions of risk be properly addressed.

Anonymous said...

Guys, this is crap if someone needs assistance help them or offer to help. Fear of being percieved as sleazy is just an excuse for not wanting to get involved.

Some years ago I was going to take my neice to a movie, toy story i think, she was about six or seven at the time. However a couple, friends of my sis-in-law "didnt think it was approaite" that I take her to a movie or even look after her without supervision. to say I was insulted was an understatement. I now wish I had stood up for myself but I virtually told my famly to go f... themselves.

AWicken said...

Anon, the first rule of any emergency response is "ensure your own safety first". I know guys who have undergone professional conduct investigations because of genuine misunderstandings (i.e. he was performing a work task and they thought it was something dodgy, not an "I thought she wanted it" sort of "misunderstanding") and/or the other person's paranoia. Documentation, mutual team observation, and other personal safety measures can stop a misdirected complaint stuffing someone's job. And these are people who DEFINITELY want to get involved.

I'm not going off about complainants "making stuff up" here, I'm just saying that in an unsafe world innocently motivated actions can be misconstrued if you don't look at the context of your behaviour. A genuine misunderstanding can result in all sorts of issues that make life difficult for everyone concerned, and a bit of forward planning and tact can sort out most situations nicely.

As to the "inappropriate" babysitting comment - I agree that's nuts on many levels, but is a wee bit different to a strange man leading a 3 year old to the service desk (and shop exit). What I find especially interesting is the power "friends" have to make parents second-guess whether they take help from a close family member.

George said...

Guys, this is crap if someone needs assistance help them or offer to help. Fear of being percieved as sleazy is just an excuse for not wanting to get involved.I think you're confusing the situation here. I don't think (would hope) that everyone here would help if they thought the person concerned genuinely needed help. It's those grey areas, where there's a woman walking along a dark road, and the potential danger is small... but real enough, and the desire to help is conflicted. Those are the ones that make for these kinds of dilemmas.

Anonymous said...

Even if your husband, Julie, had offered her a lift I don't think he would have been very happy if she had taken it - accepted the offer of a life from a male adult and complete stranger at night.

That she would accept a lift from a male stranger (or even just reducing her defences to such a proposition by encouraging her to do so and appearing trustworthy yourself) would be perhaps scarier than seeing her refuse and walk home alone.

Julie said...

Ahhh, most recent Anon this post is by Anna not me...