I’ve just finished re-reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I usually read it once every ten years or so. The last time I read it was in preparation for directing a production of Oedipus at the Pacific Conservatory for the Performing Arts (PCPA) just before George W won his second term.
I was incensed and incentivised to prove with that production that Oedipus is not flawed. He does not suffer from hubris. He is a hero’s hero. Maybe the most important hero. He states at the beginning of the play, very clearly, that he will discover who slew Laos no matter what the cost. He is undaunted, unabashed and relentless in his pursuit of the truth – even when he finds out that he is the murderer, he does not corrupt the investigation when he knows it will lead directly to his own downfall. While finding Laos’ murderer will lead to the end of the plague on Thebes, Oedipus continues to pursue the truth about himself.
In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig illuminates the Greek motive of ‘duty to oneself’ as virtue – not virtue as we now know it, but virtue as the Homeric Greeks knew it from the ideal aretê, meaning excellence, moral virtue, and the fulfilment of purpose.
Oedipus is virtuous – not in the religious sense, because his mother negated the decrees of the Gods – not in the political sense, because he is not the rightful king – not in the moral or natural sense, because he is in an incestuous relationship with his mother – not even in the familial sense, because he is the brother as well as the father of his children – but in the individual sense of who he is to himself.
Because of all the ways he is not virtuous in the external manifestations of his life, he is virtuous to the internal manifestation of who he is – no matter what the consequences. What we watch as Oedipus discovers himself, is that his resolve to know and understand himself is steadfast and undaunted by all the horrors unfolding before him.
In choosing not to be killed, but to be blinded and banished, Oedipus is also not eager to be done with himself or to become a Martyr. He is eager to suffer his punishment because he knows it is what he deserves, even and especially because it wasn’t his fault. None of what happened to Oedipus is his fault – his fate existed before he was even born – the meaning of his life was bigger than the experience of it before it even started. And in order for the citizens of Thebes, who have been watching all of this unfold, to be healed, to be released and to be cleansed from the revulsion of what he unknowingly did and who he unknowingly was, his downfall must be public.
I believe that Sophocles’ audiences would have deeply understood that Oedipus is the embodiment of aretê. I believe the audience would not have seen Oedipus as a pathetic creature pounded against the rocks like a hapless mortal by the Gods, but as a noble human whose aretê was evoked by the tragedy of his life and circumstances. What we currently mistake for hubris, the Greeks would have seen as honour. Even before Oedipus fully realises the true extent of the train wreck of his life, he knows it must have meaning for himself which in turn gives meaning to the subjects he serves.
This remembrance made me think about how much we are in need of aretê now. It made me wonder if I would think differently of Harvey Weinstein if he blinded himself or castrated himself rather than denying the allegations against him. It made me wonder if I would think differently about Louis C. K. if he came up with his own punishment out of duty to his highest self rather than trying to apologise for something you really can't apologise for. It made me chuckle to wonder if Sophocles would have written a play about a king who issues a well-manicured public apology for sleeping with his mother.
Reason Fails to Make the Case for Harassment
But Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance led me down a much richer path. Pirsig spends a lot of time discussing objective and subjective reality. When I teach this subject in my art theory classes, students end up in tears because it can be so hard to grasp. It is a bit ironic to me that our current state-of-being in Western culture is almost entirely weighted towards subjective reality – with social media, most excruciatingly in politics and with fake news. What something objectively is, matters so much less than how we feel, think or judge its reality these days. And yet the recent situation with sexual harassment has created a crisis between object and subject realities with serious and real consequences that seem to come down pretty clearly along gender lines. (This rift actually started Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign, but it was harder to see it clearly because…well…politics.)
As Pirsig basically states it, objective and subjective reality can logically be broken down as provable, tangible facts (objective) vs anything you like (subjective). The argument I hear from men about sexual harassment is that women can say harassment is anything they (don’t) like, and the subjectivity of it scares the shit out of them. A lot of harassment has no discernible objective qualities because the intent of the perpetrator matters more than the actual words said or actions taken, and the individuality of the victim matters in how she receives those words and actions. Some women are offended, and some aren’t, so is sexual harassment merely a matter of taste?
This is almost identical to covert racism, and this is why hate crimes are prosecuted differently than other crimes because a hate crime includes the intent of the perpetrator. But intent is an impossible nut to crack - even in the best and positive instances. Intent is impossible to prove in art as well, it’s not just relegated to crime. Even when we want to show the intent of the artist because it's a good thing, intent can't be proven. Intent is already impossible to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt when the intent and the outcome line up. So it is absolutely doubly impossible to prove that someone intended to hurt you if they refute their own intention. That doesn’t negate their intent, it merely means you can’t prove it. Intent is as subjective as the offense/damage done to the receiver (especially when there is no tangible evidence of loss of wages, opportunity, etc). As John Locke stated, no object is knowable except in terms of its qualities, so what are the qualities of intention?
In general (yes, I am making sweeping generalities for the sake of argument), men also tend to be Formalists, meaning that if something isn’t understood intellectually, it is not understood at all. In my personal experience, as a female Formalist, I can assure you that the consequences of sexual harassment are completely irrational. They don’t make sense. In the not making sense lies the insidious repercussions of the harassment. By undermining the victim’s sense of reality, safety, peace of mind and confidence -to name but a few - the results are traumatic, emotional, highly subjective - completely irrational. This also tends to reinforce the stereo-type that women are those things even if the woman wasn’t those things prior to the harassment.
The thing I find most interesting in terms of the object/subject rift, is that men who see women as objects tend to be offensive and seem more likely to harass – and that seems to come from their generalisations about women as a subset of humanity without regard for women as individual human beings.
Objectivity is Futile
Most men believe that truth is objective and knowable – all of science and technology is based on objective reality (that a thing exists irrespective of what anyone thinks about it and irrespective of how anyone experiences it). The ocean is the ocean no matter whether everyone on the planet likes large bodies of salty water nor if everyone on the planet has swam in one much less seen one.
In our objective driven world, if something is true, it must be true for everyone and knowable to everyone. If something is not true for some, then it is not true at all. Since sexual harassment is not true or knowable to most men and some women, then it must not be true at all. The untrue/unknowable argument (those who don’t believe) seem to rest their non-belief on lack of consequences. ‘Ah, it was only a joke. It didn’t mean anything.’ The non-believers put a lot of stock in rational consequences and no stock in emotional consequences. The reason some #MeToo women are eating their just deserts right now is that men, who are rightfully worried, are finally getting a taste of the magnitude of emotional consequences.
In the US, wife beating became a crime in 1920 but was rarely enforced until the 1970’s. Sexual harassment became a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Looking at the timing of this from a very craven point of view, it looks like male aggression towards women morphed from overt to covert because laws against physically assaulting women were starting to be enforced - physical assault transformed into sexual harassment – which is impossible to prove in an objective knowable world because there is no objective, knowable evidence. The only time sexual assault has the slightest chance of being proved is when it leaves marks, and even then it’s an uphill battle.
It is almost impossible for us to imagine a time when a man could beat the shit out of his wife with completely impunity, and I have to wonder if the evolution of the current harassment situation is similar to the evolution of that historic violence situation. We’ve come a long way baby, and I have to hope that future generations will look on the changes concerning harassment the way we look at the changes concerning violence.
The Fundamental Flaw in the Law
Our laws are also based on the objective action of the perpetrator not on the effects those actions have on the victim. This is why trials have two parts. The trial – determining guilt or innocence of the perpetrator based on objective actions; and the sentencing, which sometimes takes into consideration the impact of the crime on the victim or the victim’s family but has nothing to do with guilt or innocence. The point is that in Western law, you can’t get to the impact of the crime until you prove the perpetrator guilty of the crime. In courts of law, the crime actually exists independent of the effects the crime had on the victim.
This is irrefutably true so I’m not going to spend a huge amount of time proving it, but as Hannah Arendt so simply and elegantly stated in her New Yorker article, Eichmann in Jerusalem—I, from 1963, “… if [the perpetrator] suffers, he must suffer for what he has done, not for what he has caused others to suffer.” It is upon this legal foundation where sexual harassment loses before it even begins.
If we ask objectively, ‘what has the perpetrator done?’ objectively the answer is, ‘he said something, he propositioned, he threatened,’ but if none of those words led to tangible actions, then he hasn’t actually done much. Even in cases of bribery, where the crime is the threat, there isn’t anything provable in court until there is tangible evidence (either payment is made or the threat is carried out). In the case of sexual harassment, the crime is what the victim suffered -but even then, what objectively did the victim suffer? Shame? Humiliation? Degradation? Until harassment meets the level of provable loss of income or promotion, there isn’t even any objective evidence of the victim’s sufferance. And to bate the hook of the ridiculousness of how the law works, has the perpetrator committed less of crime if the victim is resilient and doesn’t crumble from the shame, humiliation or degradation? Certainly, the resilience of the victim has the opposite effect in the case of theft. If I steal a Porche from a guy who can afford 100 Porches, and who doesn’t acutely feel the loss of the one from my crime, I’m actually more likely to spend more time in jail than if I stole a car from a single mother who has no other means of transport to the three jobs she has to hold to feed her kids.
The difficultly with sexual harassment is that the crime exists in the relationship between the perpetrator and the victim – and that relationship is absolutely unique and subjective – and it is dependent upon the victim being a participant in the harassment - and each occurrence of harassment is unique because of the participation of the victim. One of the reasons Harvey Weinstein was not able to brush off these allegations is that so many different women described almost the exact same scenario. The same was true for Bill Cosby. In some of Weinstein’s cases, crimes were not committed and harassment did not take place (there are women who engaged without provocation that we don’t know about – yet). So if the same scenario is not a crime for some women, but is a crime for other women, how is the law to be objective and to find guilt in what was done rather than what was suffered?
In sexual harassment suits without objective, knowable proof, a victim’s testimony becomes the preponderance of evidence and is often easily refuted or completely dismissed because the cause of their trauma is not objective and knowable to anyone else but themselves. And so a perfect circle is created. If a perpetrator doesn’t commit an objective crime, and the subjective nature of the result is unprovable because a jury can’t or doesn’t see any objective consequences, then sexual harassment either doesn’t exist or it is fundamentally irrational.
I’ve also heard a lot of men saying, ‘innocent until proven guilty,’ but is the State of California really going to prosecute Louis C. K.? Even if what he did is technically a crime, is the DA really going to concern themselves with this as a criminal matter? If they don’t, the women could bring a civil case – if they have tens of thousands of dollars lying around to waste on a civil suit – and if they don’t have money, then there is no ‘proven guilty.’ I’m certainly not a fan of the court of public opinion, but I’m also not a fan of justice only being available to the those who can afford it. And in situations of sexual harassment where there is no employer, no job to lose, no human resources department in which to complain, what happens to those women’s cases? Nothing.
The Theory of Relativity
Our legal system relies on truth being absolute. Justice must be blind. But have we come to an impasse in the case of sexual harassment? Or do we need to admit that the truth is relative? Certainly if time and space, the seemingly immutable constants of the universe, are relative can’t truth be relative? The problem is that if truth is relative, Justice must be able to observe it – and which of these is the lesser of evils?
What is at risk with making truth relative and allowing Justice to see it, is corruption – pure and simple. The problem with relative truth is the lack of ability to prove integrity. We know integrity exists only because of its positive qualities but we don’t know that integrity doesn’t exist just because there is an absence of those qualities. We can’t choose to accept Al Franken’s integrity any more than we can refute Trump’s based solely on whether we like them or not. We can’t choose to accept Selma Hayak’s integrity any more than we can refute Leann Tweeden’s either. And even if we could, who would we get to stand in judgement of the relative truth and integrity of any of these people when laws and reason are insufficient determiners?
The irony of living in such a subjective time is that we haven’t cultivated any measurements of better or worse in subjective terms. We have dismissed the endeavours of the arts and culture that could have cultivated practical means for determining genuine value outside of and beyond the objective. The interesting thing is that the bankruptcy of our subjective existence is probably linked to the disappearance of aretê (excellence) in the heroic duty to oneself.
Oedipus did not set out to commit his crimes. He felt justified in his actions at the cross roads when he killed those men, and he didn’t know for about 20 years who it was he had wronged, but that doesn’t stop him from taking responsibility for his actions and blinding himself when he discovered the ramifications of who he was and what he had done.
Duty to oneself is not selfishness, it is rather the sense that accepting anything less than the excellence of yourself is unworthy of you and the society you live in. If that didn’t wipe out harassment instantaneously, in those rare cases where it happened truly unintentionally, the perpetrator would eagerly condemn himself for his transgressions – not merely apologise for it – in order to seek out the personal excellence he had lost for whatever reason. If you think what I’m suggesting is ludicrous, ask someone from Japan about honour and how their sense of honour works for them and the society they live in.