Pensées I

This is a new feature in language.rocks. “Pensées” means “thoughts” in French. “Pensées” has been used by several outstanding French writers as the title of a work of self-revelation. Loving everything French as I do,  I have always wanted to publish “My Pensées.”

The original plan was to write this first Pensées solely about my thoughts on the seemingly endless stream of accusations  of sexual harassment coming from “Hollywood,” Washington DC, Academia and elsewhere. Later I decided it necessary to preface those thoughts with a brief look at the personal philosophy from which those thoughts emanate. The following quote (French of course) is sort of a bedrock of my philosophy:

La plus grande chose du monde, c’est de savoir etre à soi.
(The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself)

This Mihichel de Montaigne* quote pretty well describes how I try to live life. The philosophy is based on three rules discussed below.  Am I confident of these three rules? Among adults, there are two groups that are sure they’ve got everything right – the very young and the very old. I have managed to move from the first group into the second – so I’m doubly sure of myself.

Rule #1 is Know Thyself. As Montaigne says, you have to belong to yourself. Is that a self-centered philosophy? Not at all. We all want to be loved. And to be loved you must give a piece of yourself to others. You can’t give away something you don’t own thus you must own, or belong to, yourself. To achieve that goal, you must know yourself. To quote Socrates: The unexamined life is not worth living.

Rule #2 is Go First. The surest way to get the things you most want in life (things such as trust, respect, recognition, etc) is to first give those things to others without regard for their return. This requires courage because typically you would prefer the other person go first in defining a relationship. That’s a mistake. Why? Because he or she is waiting for you to go first.

You must summon the courage to go first and risk being vulnerable. The fear of being vulnerable is a big cause of inaction – especially in situations where there is a lot at stake and a perceived disparity in power. But in those cases especially you must act quickly.

What are things we all want? Love would be high on nearly everyone’s list. Higher still would be respect. Again, we must go first. We must communicate respect for everyone we interact with from the moment we meet them. When we fail to communicate respect for a person we are denying our inherent kinship and diminishing the dignity incumbent in their humanness.

Rule #3 is Do Good Now. One day, after having made a spontaneous, potentially hurtful remark to somebody I said   to myself “I’m going to regret my thoughtless and unkind words and actions someday.” Then it occurred to me that likely a bigger regret would be the good, kind, and supportive things I might have said or done but did not say or do. That was one important lesson learned. Remember: You will feel better if you do it now.

Can these three rules lead us to intelligent observations and useful conclusions about how to detoxify the current distrustful and vitriolic climate created by persons who don’t know or care about the rules. I am convinced that these rules are an important part of becoming the person you want to be and that they are part of the last, best solution to the problem of sexual misconduct.

I cannot and do not assert that my thoughts on sexual misconduct should command more attention or carry more weight than anyone else’s. Yet this is an issue about which no one should remain ignorant, indifferent, or silent.

An incident of sexual harassment typically involves a woman and a man who are interacting within the context of a definable relationship (boss: subordinate; doctor: patient; police officer: citizen; professor: student, et. al.) I will share my thoughts on the three elements: the context, the woman, and the man.**

I have never been a woman, which undoubtedly limits my understanding of how a woman might feel in situations involving unwanted sexual overtures. Hopefully my efforts to be empathetic will minimize the problem. Despite my perhaps limited male perspective, I will venture to express my concerns about how, when, and where some recent public accusations were put forth. This may sound like criticism,  and it is. But I hope it doesn’t sound like “blaming the victim.” Nothing “you say, do –  or wear – should invite unwanted sexual attention.

My first concern is with waiting years to make an accusation. This can seem like part of an effort to ladle on layers of additional accusations for political, vindictive, or self-promotional purposes. Memories also change with time. Details get added, subtracted, and moved around. A one-time lover becomes a panderer, and consent once given is retroactively withdrawn. Delay in such cases is unconscionable. If something demands to be brought to light: Do it now. And do it in private and proper channels.  It bothers me when the most private of issues are laundered in the most public of places.

I can completely understand why a woman might be fearful of the impact of bringing the serious wrongdoings of a powerful man to the attention of someone (potentially another powerful man) in an organization “run by” powerful men. To that woman I say:  Their power is illusory.

In thinking about how to respond in such situations, I recommend  a woman recall our three rules.

Rule #1 Know Thyself can help you realize  that – armed with the truth –  you are the powerful one. You have more power than they do. If the need arises, you should tell them that in no uncertain terms.

Rule#2 Go First reminds us that the fear of being vulnerable can lead to temporary or long-term inaction which jeopardizes the ultimate outcome for you and for other victims. Delay does not really serve the miscreant well either.  It simply encourages arrogant insouciance or pathetic unawareness.

If you don’t bring the truth to light immediately you are ignoring Rule #3 Do Good Now. Save your sisters. Report the incident. Liberate yourself and future victims. You may also be doing good for the harasser. Perhaps he “learns his lesson” and seeks counseling.

In the end, I would say to a woman who is the victim of unwanted sexual overtures:“Give ‘em Hell.” Let them know you know you have more power than they do and you’re prepared to use it. Don’t let them intimidate you or try to blackmail or bribe you. After all, no job – or even career – is worth your dignity and self-respect. Besides that, it won’t happen, you are the one with the power. The bad is going to happen to them.

To women outraged by the extent of male impropriety, I say: “We’re not all bad.” And we’re not all guilty. Undoubtedly, the vast majority of recent accusations are essentially fair and accurate. (You only have to look at the number of –  often lame – confessions and “apologies” of perpetrators to convince yourself of that).

Nonetheless common sense and everyday experience tell us that not every accusation ”tells it like it was” Recognizing that not every allegation tells the entire story,  I’d like to see a bit more “due process” and “innocent until proven guilty” type thinking evident in the reporting of, discussion about, and response to all accusations.

To men who are unconcerned about, prone to, or engaged in harassment I want to say:   Get ready for some big changes. Retribution is coming ande it will be painful. Women are stirred up. You could feel the extent of that stir in the audience reaction to Oprah Winfrey’s speech at the Golden Globes, where he accepted the lifetime achievement award. She said Sidney Poitier, the first African-American recipient of the award, is  the most “elegant” man she could remember.

True. Poitier is an elegant man. He is also a gentleman. Elegance is probably something few men will achieve. We should all aspire, however, to be gentlemen. That would pretty much eliminate sexual misconduct. That’s where the real solution lies  – in honoring, raising, becoming, and remaining gentlemen.  Women should demand and expect gentlemanly behavior. A gentleman does not take advantage of anyone – especially no t someone less powerful or experienced than he is. He does not impose himself on other people in any way; and he does not lose control of himself.

Gentlemanliness may be growing scarcer but women appreciate it and find it attractive. As do other men, children, and small pets; nearly everyone responds positively to gentlemanliness. Applying Rule One Know Thyself is the best way to follow the gentleman’s path. It’s better to become the man you want to be earlier rather than later. Honest introspection will help you know where you stand now and where you need to go.***

You will be rewarded throughout your life for following Rule#2 Go First. You must give others those things you most want to receive with no strings attached and with no guarantee the other person will respond in kind. This leaves you vulnerable. But let’s face it: vulnerability is a large part of life, and the ability to deal with vulnerability graciously and effectively is a sign of emotional maturity.

Remember that the desire for respect is nearly universal and of huge importance. Unwanted sexual attention is perhaps the most disrespectful behavior possible. It also does not simulate love. There is no closeness or tenderness involvedThe victim has feelings of disgust, violation, and retribution. Hardly a romantic outcome.

The female victim  is very likely fearful she lacks the power the male harasser has. She is worried about her future. Actually, a man who commits sexual improprieties has very little power and is seeing his power diminish as he continues his misbehavior.

Women really are stirred up. I hope and trust this means they.are becoming less fearful and more inclined to use their power: the power of the truth.

We should not deem pitiable the outcomes that befall the most egregious offenders. The outcomes are severe. The perpetrator destroys his reputation or builds a new worse than the old. He loses his job, his family, even his freedom. Perhaps the worst punishment the harasser suffers is the self-inflicted ignominy that will last a lifetime. The best way to avoid such pathetic outcomes is to follow Rule#3 Do Good Now. Strive not to take advantage of-  but rather to help, honor, mentor and promote women.

The power we think we have can be illusory. Power, like every important thing we might seek, is best acquired by giving it away. The powerful leader is one who gives power to others and uses his own power to good purpose. Empowering and mentoring women serves us all. It will also earn their respect and possibly even their genuine affection.

* Michel de Montaigne (1533-92) was a prominent French philosopher and essayist.

**This is the pattern of the most recent public accusations. I am certain that women do harass men and that sexual harassment exists in the gay and lesbian communities. Not addressing such cases reflects a lack of space – not of respect or concern. In any event, I am certain Rules 1, 2 & 3 will provide some guidance in all cases.

*** I found Lord Chesterfield’s letters to his son on how to be and remain a gentleman interesting and useful. (I have no current reference – but I am sure Amazon has it).

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