Call us old-fashioned fuddy-duddies, or say that we’re newfangled feminists, but we have long held to the opinion that a woman should be able to walk down a public street without being subjected to the most boorish sort of behavior by men. We had thought this would not be at all controversial, with conservatives who decry the coarseness of our popular culture and liberals who take a preening pride in their concern for women finding rare room for agreement, but apparently this is not so.
Judging by the reaction to a widely-viewed hidden-camera video of a day in the unhappy life of a woman pedestrian trying to deal with the frequent unwanted attention and overtly sexual remarks and occasional threatening actions of passersby, the notion that she or any other woman is entitled to more civil treatment by her fellow citizens is either the worst sort of left-wing grievance politics or a right-wing racist plot. The video was produced by a group calling itself Hollaback, which is dedicated to the eradication of what it rightly calls “street harassment,” and has stirred up quite a fuss. More people have viewed it than tune into even a highly-rated network sitcom, pundits from across the political spectrum have weighed in, and typically illiterate comments with non-stop capitalization and an abundance of exclamation marks to emphasize the writers’ seriousness have proliferated across the internet. Thus far the vast majority of opinion, from all ideological sides, seems to be that women should not only accept such rudeness on the streets but learn to like it.
The “progressive” version of this absurd argument is based on the uncomfortable facts that the woman in the video appears to be white and most of the boorish and obnoxious men she encounters appear to be black or Latino. This is enough for Brooklyn Magazine to declare that “the audience is supposed to be, namely, those who seek to protect and defend white women, aka the already existing power structure.” At The Daily Dot the headline was “Thousands of satisfied racists are sharing that viral cat-calling video.” Someone at The Root found the video reminiscent of D.W. Griffith, which was not meant as a compliment to its innovative cinematic technique bur rather a complaint that “some of the video’s intentional choices seem to play on the ‘Birth of a Nation’ trope that white women simply aren’t safe from sex-crazed black and brown men.” The venerable commie rag The Nation found the video “deeply problematic,” and suggested a remake starring “say, a black trans woman.” Not to be outdone, the fashionable internet magazine Salon sought to imbue the rude remarks and sexual innuendo with righteous truth-to-power political significance, writing that “This kind of harassment can be a way marginalized groups talk back to the white gentrifiers taking over their neighborhoods.” There have also been frequent references to Emmitt Till, the young black man who was lynched in the Jim Crow-era south for making untoward remarks to a white woman. The behavior shown in the video is less common among white collar workers or in the suburbs where they live, so there’s the all-important class angle as well.
This outcry has been sufficient to elicit an apology from Hollaback for not including more boorish and obnoxious Caucasian men in the video, complete with an unconvincing claim that by some extraordinary coincidence technical difficulties rendered most of the white guy footage unusable, and we will concede based on our own observation that boorish and obnoxious men come in all hues. Still, we think it’s all hooey. Much of the liberal commentariat seems willing and even eager to stipulate that such boorishness is more common in black and Latino neighborhoods, as it allows them to defend the behavior on grounds of cultural relativism or ethnic authenticity or whatever the prevailing academic theory might be, even as they fault the filmmakers for not adhering to a strict quota system. The idea that a group that adopts such a hip-hoppy name as Hollaback and couches all its arguments in feminist rather than chivalrous lingo is aiming for an audience of aged rednecks rather than the modern urban woman is ridiculous, as is the notion the modern urban woman is hoping for a racist lynch mob to come to her rescue. If Brooklyn Magazine yearns for a future power structure that does not protect and defend certain women because of their race, and if The Nation truly believes that, say, a black trans woman has a more unassailable right to walk down a public avenue without being harassed than a natural-born white woman, and if Salon actually means to imply that men have a right to enforce racial segregation and prevent economic improvement in their neighborhoods by making a woman of another race uncomfortable on the streets, then all are peddling a strange brand of “liberalism” that is both immoral and unworkable in a working society. Nor are we convinced by arguments that a certain behavior is acceptable because white collar suburbanites don’t do it, no matter how strenuously they are stereotyped as sexual repressed Republicans. Certainly none of these arguments can explain why the unfortunate woman in the video should endure such outrageous remarks from men she has never given any offense.
Race and class will always trump gender in the liberal trinity of holy causes, so such nonsense is to be expected, but we have been disappointed by the reaction on the right. Two of our favorite destinations on the internet are Powerline and Instapundit, and both were dismissive of the Hollaback group’s complaints. The former characterized the behavior seen in the video as “friendly, flattering, inappropriate, or, in one or two instances, creepy, although never threatening,” while the latter dismissed it as a “first world complaint” in comparison to the far worse conditions faced by women in areas controlled by the Islamic State. Rush Limbaugh had an uncharacteristically ambiguous take on the video on his popular radio show, taking pains to correctly point out that the black and Latino New Yorkers depicted are most unlikely to be Republicans or part of that party’s alleged “war on women,” but his callers had no sympathy for the women no matter the political affiliations of her tormentors. With all due respect to the imminent gentlemen at Powerline, we wonder which of the gratuitous comments about the woman’s anatomy they considered “flattering” and which were merely “inappropriate,” and how many minutes a thuggish-loooking young man must follow a woman in lockstep before it crosses that nebulous boundary between “creepy” and “threatening,” and whether the same standards would apply if it were their wives or daughters on those streets. Instapundit’s estimable Prof. Reynolds can be forgiven for chastising the feminist movements for its appalling failure to support its sisters in a third world that is somehow exempt from moral judgments, but wrong to suggest that women should wait until their circumstances degenerate to that level before voicing reasonable demands for civil treatment on public streets. Conservatives have been obligated to resist feminism’s unreasonable demands for so long that it has by now become an ingrained habit, but it’s a strange brand of conservatism that will justify the most boorish behavior of some of its political opponents rather than cede any rhetorical ground to others.
We were heartened to see longtime conservative standard-bearer The National Review give space to a young woman staffer’s plea for a more polite public square, as well as a thoughtful piece about the left’s inherent contradictions and the difficulty of addressing the problem through legal mechanisms, but were disappointed to note that most of the comments were as hateful and vile as anything you might find in a YouTube posting. In most cases the anonymous comments at any of the numerous sites posting the video seemed to have little to do with political ideology and much to do with bitter personal experience. The angriest men are obviously seething with resentment toward some pretty woman that they had futilely attempted to woo on a passing encounter, no matter how crude or clumsy their efforts might have been. The angriest women are openly resentful of the male attention the woman in the video attracts, despite the very unappealing nature of the men. There is much commentary on her physical appearance, as if a woman relinquishes a right civil treatment once her breasts grow so large or her buttocks attain a certain roundness, as well as her wardrobe, as if a very ordinary combination of black t-shirt and black pants has such an overwhelming effect on the male libido that it must be replaced with mandatory burqas to protect the women of indeterminate race and ethnicity underneath, and enough anger over unsatisfactory sex lives to fill a thousand hip-hop and heavy metal recordings. Much of it is expressed in the most vile language that the inarticulate writers can manage, and perfectly illustrates what we mean we speak of the coarseness of our popular culture.
All attempts to defend the men in the video in apolitical terms are also unconvincing. In some instances the intent of the remarks shouted at the woman are open to interpretation, and on some streets in America might be considered friendly, but in New York City that social compact has always insisted on what the sociologists call “civil inattention” and in every case the woman makes clear by her facial expression and demeanor that anything else is unwelcome. A remark about the buttocks of a unfamiliar woman might be intended as a compliment, but only by someone by too stupid and insensitive to give a moment’s thought to how it will likely be received. Such behavior might well be acceptable in the context of a black or Latino culture, but lynching black and Latino people for such behavior was once acceptable in the context of of southern cultures, and there’s an argument to be made that neither should be acceptable in the context of contemporary American culture. Some of those anonymous commentators seem to think that romance will vanish once boys are taught not to speak to unfamiliar women without permission, but we note that was the harshly enforced rule in the Romantic Age and content that “Hey, baby, nice ass” has rarely led to true love and family life and happily ever after. The oft-cited argument that boys will be boys is easily refuted by the fact that not all of us boys behave this way, and would fear the wrath of their pre-feminist Christian mothers and hairy-legged feminist ex-girlfriends if they ever did.
As much as we sympathize with Hollaback’s complaints about such boorish behavior, we can’t support its call for legislation to deal with the problem. Writing a law that distinguishes between a friendly “hello” and a more intrusive greeting, or takes into consideration the social standards of a small southern town and the crowded sidewalks of New York City, will ultimately prove impossible and will inevitably have a chilling effect on the freedom of more essential speech. What’s needed is the same sort of powerfully pervasive social stigma that was once used to discourage out-of-wedlock births and welfare dependency and vulgarity but is now only employed against racial slurs and any squeamishness regarding homosexuality. A solid coalition of pre-feminist Christian mothers and hairy-legged feminists and cultural conservatives and oh-so-concerned-about-women progressives could do much to ensure a woman’s right to walk down a public street without being subjected to the most boorish sort of behavior by men, but that seems unlikely.
— Bud Norman