The Lady Garden

Tea and Strumpets

Living Up

When I was a teenager, my English teacher used me to illustrate the difference between “immoral” and “amoral”. I’ve never been much of a one for sticking to (or rebelling against) conventional ethical or ideological codes. That doesn’t mean I don’t have one, though. I’ve just worked it out, step by step, by myself. And yes, sometimes that means taking years and years to get to where most other people started off.

One of the things about this process is that when you let yourself down, ethically or ideologically, you’ve got no-one to blame but yourself. In the last week or so, there’ve been three incidents that have really made me think about whether or not I’m failing to live up to my own ideals.

We had EQC inspectors through the house this weekend, finally. And it was all great, and the guy I was talking to was just awesome and friendly and incredibly easy to deal with. Right up to the point where he asked for the floor area of the house, I gave it to him off the top of my head, and he replied, “Wow. Not bad for a girl.”

Now, fortunately my ethical code doesn’t say “You must fight every single battle,” because honestly, I was so gob-smacked that he’d said that, that I did nothing at all. I just sort of sat there while the conversation progressed. And later I had to think about why I’d done that, why I hadn’t called him on being a sexist arsehole, and if it was worth him liking me enough to decide our kitchen vinyl did need replacing.

Scenario Two. We have these neighbours we don’t get on very well with. Mostly because they’re fuckwads. But we try to have some kind of constructive contact with them so we’re not just calling noise control and the cops and hating on them all the time. So when the guy from next door came over and asked if I wanted to come back to his house for a coffee and a couple of cigarettes, I said yes. Reluctantly, but yes.

Now, my partner wasn’t home but my daughter was. I let Twitter know where I was going. There is nothing quite like the sense that 400 people have your back. I took my phone. Why? Because sometimes the guy next door stands at their kitchen window, or on their back doorstep, and watches me get dressed.

Anyway, I started over, he met me out on the street, and suggested we drive down to the surf club. I claimed to not be able to leave my daughter. In the end, he came over to my side and we sat out on our new deck in the sun. And he asked me if I would take photographs of him in his underwear. He asked me about my own underwear preferences.

Now, thing is, when he decided to verbally harass me, he chose to play in MY field. Half an hour later we were talking about Chris Cairns’s performances in Scotland. I handled him. That’s not to say it didn’t utterly squick me out, but I dealt with it.

My problem was a couple of days later, realising that I was changing the clothes I wore in case he saw me. I was unconsciously trying to be dowdier and less attractive. I was trying to see if he was around before I went outside. And my Code of Conduct says “Don’t let the fuckers change your life.” I caught myself. I went back to being all TOFO. I’m fully aware that might seem like a dangerous choice to some people, and the previous just a sensible precaution, but it’s my life, and I will not live it like that.

Incident Number Three. After it coming up in a couple of conversations lately, I acquired a copy of Secretary, which I basically hadn’t watched since it came out, when it was quite the Big Fucking Deal for me. I mean, how often do you see a complex but sympathetic depiction of a BDSM relationship in mainstream cinema? (I was going to make a parenthetical comment here about the Invisible Dom/me phenomenon, but it might actually be another column.)

And I had to think about whether I was going to leave the file in the household general sharing media folder, or hide it somewhere so my 16 and 14 year old children couldn’t find it. (Yes, it’s rated R18. As a parent, I’ve found our certification system completely fucking useless as a guide to what I can show my children.)

Thing is, I shouldn’t even have thought about it. I’m comfortable with them seeing vanilla sexual material of that degree of explicitness. And it is absolutely core to my beliefs that non-vanilla sexuality shouldn’t be treated any differently. In the end, I left the file where they could stumble across it, but I had to think about it for days.

The point of all this being, I guess, that it’s an eternally on-going process. That’s part of the reason I’m so down on policing and so open to talking about ideas when I haven’t yet made up my mind. Finding your own path is not a one-time deal.

41 responses to “Living Up

  1. Alex Fulton (@skcidfogab) October 3, 2011 at 11:52 am

    If you’re able to go into why and how you betrayed your own principles so fluently, I think you’re streets ahead of most people. I try very hard to make my own moral standards and live by them, but very often find myself feeling guilty or displeased by my own actions and usually can’t even put my finger on why.

    • Emma October 3, 2011 at 12:43 pm

      I was talking to a friend about this the other day, and I said that a really important thing for me is to start from a solid understanding of who I am and what I’m capable of. Otherwise I might end up constantly angry with myself because I’ve failed to live up to a completely unrealistic standard.

      Where I end up not being very self-aware is in my feelings. They’re puzzlingly resistant to logical analysis.

      • Phuong October 3, 2011 at 1:07 pm

        Thanks for sharing, Emma. Makes me reflect about all the times where I didn’t pulled people up on their sexist, racist or homophobic behaviour and was left wondering afterwards why I opted to say nothing. I always end up wanting to kick myself.

        • tallulahspankhead October 4, 2011 at 7:20 am

          I remember being utterly appalled once, when out with some friends, they accused me of having no morals. Because, actually, I do have them. They just don’t look like theirs.

          Mine consist of balancing standing up for myself (and my beliefs), and being good to other people. The times I have most let myself down have been when I failed to do one of those things, but usually the latter. When I’ve done something because I wanted to, without thinking of the consequences for other people. I spend a lot of time, particularly recently feeling like the most selfish person in the world.

          But actually, it’s the standing up part that’s harder. I would have been gobsmacked by the EQC inspector, too. And for every time I’ve holla’d back at someone harrassing me, there’s been five times I’ve slunk away, blushing, wishing the ground would swallow up. For every time I’ve stood up to a pro-lifer, there’s times when the argument just seems like too much work. And for every time I’ve called out an unthinking sexist statement, there’s times when I’ve made statements just as bad.

          But I think that thinking about these things, and acknowledging when we get them wrong is significantly more important that getting it right all the time. We learn more that way. And I’m all about the learning.

          • Isabel October 4, 2011 at 11:26 am

            For me, I think the question of what to stand up to and when marks the point where several different values intersect. Speaking up for what I believe in is important but so is preserving social harmony and preserving my own mental well-being in order to be able to do the other stuff which is important to me. How I balance and apply those things changes over time but it’s always a cause of second-guessing. For every “I should have said something” moment I also have an “I said too much and upset someone unnecessarily” one.

          • Moz October 4, 2011 at 12:11 pm

            I see the “different morals = no morals” occasionally. I think that’s the core of the “atheists are bad” meme in the USA, as well. It makes me more reluctant to speak up or intervene, because doing so means I have to be willing to engage in a spirited discussion of my ethics. It might not happen, but it’s often enough that it’s discouraging.

            And often the way I use language as well – I get told “stop saying rape, that’s offensive, he never said no”, for example. I find that at times I can’t bring myself to use the offensive terms in order to avoid the language argument, but that means intervening is basically useless because it immediately derails. So I often let the worst offenders slip by because I can’t bring myself to start at the very beginning… “Consent matters” “Why?”. Easier to just say “I want not to hear about that” and move on.

            And in many cases people have quite legitimate reasons for what they do. I have friends who drive big 4WD vehicles, for instance, because every now and then they might want to drive on a gravel road. It makes perfect sense to them to pay for that, and everyone else suffering as a result is insufficient. Trying to discuss it just leads to being written off as an extremist. Or worse, told “I agree, but I can’t be bothered”.

          • Phuong October 4, 2011 at 5:45 pm

            @ tallulahspankhead, Isabel & Moz:
            I guess my concern surrounds the reasons behind the need to be “good” to other people. Confronting or merely pointing out to people about their offensive behaviour shouldn’t be frowned upon and yet someone who does so is seen as a trouble-maker. I grew up in a household where questioning of authority was actively discouraged, where discussion of upsetting topics was generally avoided and where conflict is seen as a negative thing and so am aware I often automatically respond this way. Within society the need to “keep the peace” seems to override the need for discussion and questioning of social norms. What you have all pointed out to me sounds more like the need to work on the approach and the way topics are presented as opposed to the need to sometimes not point out offensive behaviour.

          • Phuong October 4, 2011 at 5:51 pm

            Moz said:
            “And in many cases people have quite legitimate reasons for what they do.”

            I’ve been careful in this discussion to not say that what I believe is “right” is not necessarily what others may believe as being “right” ’cause I’d just be one of those ranting extremists. But having the discussion, opening up things so people are aware of alternative viewpoints is, in my mind, important. Pointing out offensive behaviour and planting that seed is important and if they choose to ignore it then they’re making an informed choice.

          • Emma October 4, 2011 at 8:26 pm

            Phuong: thing is, there’s more than one way to raise the issue. Because actually, “calling out” isn’t always right, and it isn’t always constructive. If you really offend someone, you may have just hurt your cause. I wrote a bit about this when I talked about erasure here

          • tallulahspankhead October 5, 2011 at 8:16 am

            Phuong, yeah, sorry, I wasn’t clear. The two are very seperate in my mind. Being good to people is about how I behave towards others, how I let my own life impact on others. So, not deliberately hurting people. Do unto others, etc.

            When I have the spoons, I have no problem calling someone who is being a sexist dickhead a sexist dickhead. And depending on the situation, in exactly those terms. More gently, if the situation warrants it, if I am putting myself or someone else in physical or mental danger, but as forcefully as I can. There’s a reason I am the office harpy, and I am completely OK with that role. But yes, as Emma points out, sometimes, you do have to tread that line clearly, so as not to alienate people. And we all get that wrong.

      • Isabel October 4, 2011 at 11:14 pm

        I come from a family (or at least a mother) where we do call each other out on our shit. It works because it occurs in a context of secure and unconditional respect and love. I don’t think that calling out people that one doesn’t have a relationship with is likely to have much of a positive effect. Setting up personal conflict very rarely achieves anything beyond bad feelings and wasted energy

  2. Jackie Clark October 3, 2011 at 12:00 pm

    Oh, well said, Emma. Well said. Your first incident? I would have reacted the same way – gobsmackedness. I may even have agreed with him. (Not that I know what the area measurements of my house are, but then I’m pretty sure Ian doesn’t either). Re pervy neighbour: I have to admit to being a bit worried about his behaviour, and I still worry about it. I don’t think you should change your actions in any way, but I do wonder if the police need to know about his proclivities?

  3. Deborah October 3, 2011 at 12:15 pm

    Fantastic post, Emma.

    I’ve taught Ethics at university, and over time, I’ve become particularly enamoured of virtue ethics, because one of the things that it emphasises is the need for constant ongoing reflection on our ethical choices, good and bad, working out what we did well, and what we didn’t do so well. I think that being an ethical person is nothing to do with following some set of rules, or for that matter, refusing to follow a particular set of rules because you don’t like rule following. It’s to do with developing some ideals and trying to live up to them and reflecting on them, and on particular events and actions, and revising and updating those ideas, including admitting to ourselves when we get it wrong, and admitting to ourselves when we get it right.

    Also, I sometimes feel very uneasy when I come across someone who has some set ethical rules, and they’re the same ones that she has had forever. That kind of rigidity is fine if the person never has to deal with anything new, but it’s not so good when new problems arise. Such as acquiring a copy of Secretary and having teenage children who may want to watch it. I recall many years ago someone criticising Germaine Greer because her thinking had changed since her late twenties / early thirties. There are many, many things to criticise Greer about, but criticising her for having different view quarter of a century later? Good grief.

    • Emma October 3, 2011 at 12:51 pm

      What I wonder about people who have static ethics is how often they “transgress” without actually even realising, because they simply don’t think about their code. And the simpler and more black-and-white the code, the more situations you, surely, must run across where it simply doesn’t work.

      • Moz October 3, 2011 at 1:58 pm

        I read a blog post the other day with similar thinking. The gist was that being an observant member of a religion is not so much about following rules exactly as written on the buttocks of your god, but thinking about those rules when you have to make choices. Of course, she immediately tied this back to BDSM and “what would my dom want me to do” (WWMDWMTD). Sorry, can’t find the link from work.

        I appreciate the idea of reflecting on whether my ethics are acheivable. That’s a useful addition to the list of things to think about. WWMDWMTD?

        • Phuong October 3, 2011 at 2:08 pm

          Similarly, as a vegetarian I sporadically eat meat/fish to ensure that I am (at other times) vegetarian by choice and not because I’ve just pigeon-holed myself.

        • Muerk October 3, 2011 at 6:30 pm

          “being an observant member of a religion is not so much about following rules exactly as written on the buttocks of your god, but thinking about those rules when you have to make choices.”

          I would totally agree with this. I would say that my faith gives me guidelines and principles mostly, with some rules as well, but how I apply those to my life requires a lot of thinking and reflecting on my behavior. Often I fall short with how I want to behave.

          I think people who aren’t spending time thinking about their ethical choices are selling themselves short.

          Also I second the advice about the creepy neighbor, although I’m not sure what the police could do, but even knowing about the guy could be useful especially if he has a criminal history.

    • Bart Janssen October 3, 2011 at 1:59 pm

      I think one thing to note is most folks don’t ever consciously consider their ethics at all. They have them and they live by them, or not. But examination of one’s ethics is not all that common. Most folks just live their lives. Not sure that’s a bad thing.

  4. Max Rose October 3, 2011 at 12:43 pm

    I won’t get too much in to ethical dilemmas, since I’m … not always that good at them. But I will mention some of my own thoughts about Secretary.

    I agree about its complexity and its general sympathy for BDSM, and it probably played a part in my own greater understanding of that sexual spectrum. It’s also brilliantly cast, funny, and let’s face it, freaking hot. But I wondered a lot about its depiction of Lee’s self-harm, and whether this was an entirely sympathetic treatment rather than something that attempts to explain away her sexual preferences or even pathologise them. Would that send mixed messages to young people?

    • Emma October 3, 2011 at 12:48 pm

      Unsurprisingly, I have issues with this too. I mean, I don’t think it was ever intended to indicate that “all subs are cutters” (to over-simplify for length) but that self-harm was part of this one individual woman’s story. But that is quite a subtle reading, and perhaps if it was your first encounter with BDSM material, the self-harm might seem defining. And also support a “bastard exploits vulnerable damaged woman” reading, which doesn’t quite hold up once Lee so obviously becomes the stronger character.

      What I like most about it is the depiction of Edward and his battles with his own desires. Which is the “absent Dom” I was talking about, you don’t often get a glimpse of that psychology, and being who I am, it fascinates me far more than the mental processes of the sub.

      • Max Rose October 3, 2011 at 1:50 pm

        Without wanting to tempt you into a parenthesis (so to speak), I would be interested if you could point me towards any links about the “Absent Dom”. Personally, I’m nothing like Edward “battling with his own desires”, in that while I’ve been intrigued by BDSM porn/erotica yet conflicted by aspects of it, I’ve had no burning desire to hurt or dominate. While I think I’m starting to relish the role of Dom when a lover wants that from me, I have a lingering sense that I’m more comfortable with the idea that a person would have a desire to be hurt than that someone would have a desire to hurt another.

        [I will get around to talking seriously about ethics rather than sex all the time. Honest.]

        • Emma October 3, 2011 at 2:01 pm

          Well, no, I can’t, because it’s a phrase I just made up to describe a phenomenon I’ve only recently noticed. But seeing as this is where it’s naturally coming up, we can talk about it here.

          Basically, if you go to the tumblr of a male Dom, you’ll find lots of pictures of submissive women. And if you go to the tumblr of a submissive woman, you’ll find… lots of pictures of submissive women. And I’ve found with the erotica I read, too, way more attention paid to what goes through the head of the sub, than the Dom. If you look at The Story of O (like the short story Secretary is based on, written by a female sub), there’s a striking lack of attention to the motivations of the Doms, what goes through their heads, how they feel about overcoming the intense social sanction against violence. The Dom/mes disappear. They become remote, impersonal.

          This isn’t absolute, of course. It’s the internet. If you look hard enough, you’ll find whatever you’re after. But I’m fascinated by the Dom head-space, and I notice its lack. And it’s one area where Secretary does well. I mean, I know… the sub experience is so very simple to me, though I know people who do battle with it still, and wonder why the hell and how they can be like that. Me? I’m overwhelmed with sensation and I just made someone want me enough to overcome any compunctions about really causing pain. Ace.

          • Bart Janssen October 3, 2011 at 2:08 pm

            “to overcome any compunctions about really causing pain”

            And this is the point where I shake my head because I just don’t get that bit at all. It leaves me with the same feeling I have when my wife says SBW with his shirt off is hot and I’m left with ummm yeah ok.

          • Emma October 3, 2011 at 2:15 pm

            Oh Bart, darling. Just accept that both of those things are So Fucking Hot.

            My partner really likes to feel he has a grasp of the kind of people I find sexually attractive. That’s led to him saying, “Zac Guildford? Really? Really?” a lot lately. I don’t get what he doesn’t get.

          • Oliver (@viricapnity) October 3, 2011 at 8:01 pm

            That’s an intriguing one that I’ve been somewhat struggling with lately. For me, I have had to think very carefully about causing pain, as my knowledge of men who enjoy causing pain is based on a similar youth environment to yours. And when asked to inflict pain, and leave bruises and so forth, I have to very carefully make sure I am clear in my own head that it isn’t simple cruelty. I mean, it isn’t, I know that, and do all the right things about safewords and aftercare and so forth, and have always agreed to, rather than asked. So for me, the Absent Dom is about it being all about the sub and her trusting and wanting me enough to want me to do that. Which may not be the Dom head space, I suppose, but works for me. Maybe that’s more common than I thought.

          • Emma October 3, 2011 at 8:31 pm

            Okay, woo… Let me see if I can explain it from my point of view, because I’m not sure about this idea of a “natural Dom”.

            I have been physically assaulted. (I have also been sexually assaulted, but that didn’t involve hitting or the deliberate infliction of actual pain.) And it simply couldn’t be more different. For a person to be sexually aroused by the idea of actually assaulting someone is NOT a “natural Dom headspace”. As a Dom/me, what you’re inflicting is pleasure. There is a clear understanding that this is wanted, desired, and that’s the source of the arousal.

            But. As a sub, of course I want my Dom/me to actually be enjoying what they’re doing, and not just for my sake. You want to give pleasure, so do I. And you know, if I can’t so much as physically touch you, my scope to be giving pleasure in that situation is limited.

            Please note that I’m using “you” in the general sense. Because no offence darling, but Jesus. Let’s not go there.

            I take visceral pleasure, for instance, from BDSM porn. If I’m with a Dom I want them to feel the same, to find the contemplation of collared cuffed and bruised arousing. If I have the feeling it’s just about me and what I want, it’d be like, well, having sex with someone who just wasn’t really into it.

          • tallulahspankhead October 3, 2011 at 9:01 pm

            the sub experience is so very simple to me, though I know people who do battle with it still, and wonder why the hell and how they can be like that.

            Yeah, that’s kind of me. I mean, I know why I am like I am, and I’m not judging it at all, but there are times, in the aftermath, when I just don’t Get It. When I can’t sit down easily, and I have to decide what to wear so obvious bruises aren’t showing, I do wonder why.

            And the thing I remember? Is how it feels, at the time. Not the physical sensation, so much, though, that’s nice, clearly. But the idea that the dom/me knows what I want, and is willing to give it to me. Is enjoying giving it to me, even. Ah, as it were.

            You mentioned this in a PA column, Emma, that the dom/me is a fundamentally caring role. It is. I’ve also been physically assaulted, and it’s nothing, nothing the same.

            I’ve also been in an emotionally abusive relationship, and one of the things I’m always wary of is that control aspect. I hate the idea of being controlled in any other way, but with a good dom/me, I know, always, it’s actually about me, and not them _wanting_ to hurt or belittle or control me.

          • tallulahspankhead October 3, 2011 at 9:05 pm

            Oh, and I should add, anyone I thought was in it because they liked inflicting pain or humiliation or making someone helpless regardless of what the other person wants? I’d walk away from quicker than you can say my safeword. (which is very short)

          • Oliver (@viricapnity) October 3, 2011 at 9:46 pm

            I’m having difficulty articulating this clearly, and may have just rethought my position. I absolutely agree, there is no correspondence between BDSM stuff and actual assault, and that one is in fact inflicting pleasure. And I have deep trouble with the idea of any particular “X head space”, or a something being what a “natural X” does – it’s (ideally) what one wants it to be. Or rather, at least two, which turns out to be, eventually, my point.

            But for me, I need to keep a distinction in my head, and remind myself of that. I’m clear about it, but suspicious enough of my own potential for evil (immediately after I post this, I’ll work out a less dramatic way of saying that, and feel ashamed) to want to constantly remind myself of what I’m *actually* doing. And I do worry about turning evil, or that I already have.

            Having said that, I *do* enjoy it. It being all about the sub isn’t a limiting thing, necessarily. I take immense (and, at least initially, surprising) pleasure in things that would horrify me in the absence of consent. And I can’t clearly say why at this point, but it isn’t just because someone wants me to. That’s necessary, but not sufficient. So, it seems that when I say it’s all about the sub, I don’t mean that it’s solely for her (only relevant pronoun for me, at this point, no general implication intended) benefit. I am genuinely enjoying myself. Perhaps the best way I can put it is to say that, for me, it’s a conflation of doing things for, and doing things to, someone. But the other person is the important factor for me. It’s doing something together. And maybe the reason there are photos of subs, and not of doms, is that, for both parties, the obvious thing is what’s happening to the sub. It isn’t that nothing’s happening to (or for) the dom, it’s that the sub is more visually interesting.

            And I’m so deeply uncomfortable talking about this that I am going to have to go away and think if I can explain it more clearly to myself. The whisky will help me.

        • Moz October 3, 2011 at 2:02 pm

          Max “Service Top” Rose says: “I will get around to talking seriously about ethics rather than sex all the time. Honest.”

          Given that I’m over 40 now, is this likely to happen while I’m still alive? I’d like to hear that. 😛

          • Max Rose October 3, 2011 at 2:14 pm

            Glad to know I’ve got a label 😛

            I would actually like talk about that, and I started getting onto that thread back when I wrote about Sex at Dawn, but my thoughts so far have involved Dante, Bentham, The Ethical Slut and Mr Spock, so it might take me a while to get that into a meaningful form!

          • Emma October 3, 2011 at 2:21 pm

            I have just spent about five minutes trying to find a way to say that we’re always delighted to host Max’s writing that doesn’t sound incredibly sleazy. I give.

  5. 81stcolumn October 3, 2011 at 12:50 pm

    What Deborah said +

  6. Beckie October 3, 2011 at 1:08 pm

    Your neighbours actions disturb me,I came across this the other day playing Scrabble online, i kept getting asked if i was horny and if I liked it rough,excuse me,but aren’t we playing Scrabble?? Some men (and women) have no boundaries and the internet is exposing this 100%. What was your partner’s reaction,I told mine about the Scrabble guy and he felt that it was completely disrespectful…pity he wasn’t here when it happened!

    • Emma October 3, 2011 at 1:16 pm

      Word for word, my partner said, “You’re fucking kidding me!” He was simply incredulous, he couldn’t believe it had happened. Then he was really angry, once it sank in.

      That said, he manages a very delicate balance between making me feel supported, and respecting my ability to take care of myself.

  7. Bart Janssen October 3, 2011 at 1:53 pm

    Wow, so hard on yourself Emma. Does your moral code demand you be perfect, for whatever value of perfect you wish to define for yourself? I really don’t think it’s a matter of betraying principles but a matter of understanding that the reality of any given situation does indeed change the importance of any given principle. Let’s say you told the EQC guy where to shove his sexism, would you have changed his world view? Or simply encouraged him to let your file slip to the bottom? Some victories really are pyrrhic. Maybe if you’d handled it just perfectly you could have let him know his assumptions were sexist without pissing him off so much he’d go away and screw over your claim … maybe.

    As for sleazy neighbour. You know some things really are worthwhile having a word to the local police about. I get not living your life in fear of others, but you may not be the only person he has harassed. As for noise control, I love them – ever since we had neighbours who thought 2 am mid-week parties were just dandy, but then I’m a grumpy old fart.

    Oh and as an aside, those moral principles I worked out for myself when I was 20 something – I was even more of an idiot then than I am now! The world I live in now is all kinds of shades of grey.

    • Emma October 3, 2011 at 2:10 pm

      No, that’s one of the things about my own squishy flexible moral code: it doesn’t demand that I’m perfect, or that I take on every fight. I think it does demand that I acknowledge, even to myself, when I’ve chosen to not take one on, though. And yeah, my after-the-fact assessment with EQC guy was that I couldn’t actually have achieved anything by pulling him up on it.

      I would like to think that I’ve learned and become more competent since my university days, but I suspect (and also that this isn’t just me) that it’s simply that I don’t find myself in those kinds of situations any more.

  8. EQCAnon October 3, 2011 at 1:54 pm

    I’m appalled that one of our inspectors would say such an utterly sexist thing. If you do feel like pursuing this, let me know.

  9. Max Rose October 3, 2011 at 6:23 pm

    One thing that surprised me in your examples of ethical and ideological codes, and hence made me reassess some of my own thinking, is how much they’re about actively expressing your beliefs rather than just not doing bad stuff to people. That should be obvious, of course, but I think I’ve been fixating too much recently on the concept of “doing no harm” and how that sometimes conflicts with the need for honesty. Thanks for reminding me that a life well lived consists of more than just not being a dick.

    And when I think about it, most of the ethical decisions I face on a day-to-day basis aren’t about avoiding unethical actions, since even with a complicated life such as mine I’m not constantly walking a tightrope of decency across a void of caddishness. It’s just that those sort of decisions tend to have greater (or more obvious) consequences, and so they loom larger in my ethical equations. But it’s things like deciding how much effort I put into a potentially lost cause at work, whether to subtly suggest to a friend that a well-aimed OIA request might unearth unethical behaviour, whether to avert one’s eyes from a charity collector and when to stand up for someone else’s rights that make up the majority of ethical decisions.

    Sometimes that does involve a calculation of physical or emotional risk, as well as the rightness of the action and the possibility that it might backfire. About a year ago I was on a bus when I noticed a guy yelling at his girlfriend while intentionally blocking the seat so that she couldn’t have got out to the aisle if she wanted to. Initially I just glared back at him, to let him know that people were watching and wouldn’t stand for it. He backed off for a bit, though he kept on harassing her about some perceived infidelity, and I assumed that he surely wouldn’t try anything in front of so many people. But then he got worse, and as soon as he started grabbing her face to make her look at him I just stood up, pointed at him and said “No”.

    Now, I’m not exactly a fighter, and certainly don’t look like one, but I guess I’m privileged in that I’m tall, male and reasonably healthy. Others around me might not have had those advantages, so they may not have had the option to take a stand, but I would have hoped for a bit of solidarity. As it was, I spent the rest of the journey standing alone and arguing with him while he threatened and spat at me, said it was none of my business and I should sit down or get a hiding. His girlfriend also looked even more frightened than before and begged me to let it go, and I started wondering whether she’d get even worse punishment because of my intervention. It *felt* like I was doing the right thing, almost to the extent that I had no option, but might it perhaps have backfired?

    In the end, all I could have hoped for is that I made him think twice about what he considered his right to treat someone like that with impunity, and maybe helped her think about what the hell she was doing with such a bastard. If no-one had said a thing, both his own smug sense of abusive entitlement and her sense that this might be normal and acceptable would have been reinforced. I still don’t know whether I made any immediate positive difference, but now that I think about it, what mattered was not any Benthamite felicific calculus, but whether I embodied the values I believe in. I’m sure that plenty of others here have even more hair-raising examples, but this is the first think that sprung to mind after your post.

    • Emma October 3, 2011 at 8:45 pm

      Dude, you’re seriously making my brain hurt. Which of course is why I love you.

      but now that I think about it, what mattered was not any Benthamite felicific calculus, but whether I embodied the values I believe in.

      They both matter, I think. I mean, that’s easy for me to say, because that “weighing harms and benefits” is (supposedly) the basis of the values I believe in.

      The situation you detail is a really tricky one, and that’s something not a lot of people realise, because surely intervening is the right thing to do? But of course, she might well have taken the brunt of his anger when they got home and suffered more than she otherwise would. Or you might have planted the seed that would lead to her getting herself out of that situation. You don’t know them, you couldn’t, so there’s no way you could make that call. Or the behaviour of one of the witnesses might have changed “next time”.

      You can’t know, you just can’t know. There’s no way to do the maths. And maybe that is when you have to fall back on “this is the kind of person I want to be”.

      That should be obvious, of course, but I think I’ve been fixating too much recently on the concept of “doing no harm” and how that sometimes conflicts with the need for honesty.

      Well the easiest way of “doing no harm” is to do nothing at all. And then we do no good, either. Perhaps I’m very aware of it from days of being one of few women in a group of mostly-straight men, but many times I’ve contemplated the happiness I can give to one person, and the unhappiness this might cause another person. Or moderate-sized group of people. And all the time in the back of that calculus is “how much of this am I sure of, and how much am I fudging so I can do the thing I’m not consciously aware I want to do anyway?” And one of the people whose happiness I need to remember to consider, is Me.

      how much they’re about actively expressing your beliefs rather than just not doing bad stuff to people

      Dude, an awful lot of my life now is talking about stuff instead of doing it. If I’m not actively expressing my beliefs I may as well not have them.

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