On March 28th, the Washington Post ran a piece on Karen Pence, the wife of Vice President Mike Pence. Other than coming across as a postmodernist secular liberal at an anthropological zoo staring in a bewildered fashion into the cage of a lifestyle inconceivable to them, the piece was broadly neutral and innocuous.
Except, apparently, this one small paragraph out of a 44 paragraph piece:
In 2002, Mike Pence told the Hill that he never eats alone with a woman other than his wife and that he won’t attend events featuring alcohol without her by his side, either.Oh, my. The postmodernist secular left twittersphere went crazy, hooting, mocking, and hating.
Emma Green has good coverage in her piece, How Mike Pence's Marriage Became Fodder for the Culture Wars.
I posted on a related topic some years ago. I observed that in the modern business environment, the well-intended laws attempting to forestall workplace harassment and hostile environments also had unintended consequences. The laws are well intended. And they do address real world problems (predatory behavior and coerced intimacy between hierarchically powerful men and subordinate women [or, more rarely, the reverse]). My impression is that since the nineties, and since the implementation of ERP systems in major corporations (which make objective measurement of some aspects of discrimination more demonstrable), the incident rate of such behavior has declined. But a million years of evolution is a more dominant force than an ERP system. Constant vigilance and all that.
However, from an economics point of view, such efforts, valuable and well-intended as they might be, also created perverse incentive systems.
The stipulations are:
It takes 10-15 years of effort to establish some sort of beneficial personal brand and track record of competence and achievement.Accepting these predicates as broadly true, it then follows from an economics perspective, that most males will take strong measures to preclude the possibility of accusations arising.
That personal brand has real commercial value.
Intimacy exploitation and coercion in the workplace have become career ending accusations.
Whether an accusation has merit or not, the personal brand destruction is nearly equal.
When the action taken is simply not to exploit subordinate females, that is exactly what you want.
But of course it doesn't stop there. It might work if humans were infallible and there were never any false accusations but that is not the nature of humans. There are false accusations all the time, though the percentage is hotly debated. But from a practical point of view, if the stakes are high (destruction of 15 years of personal brand creation) and the risk is real (even if low), then it behooves the risk-averse male to take precautionary actions above and beyond simply avoiding exploitive behavior.
What do those precautionary actions look like? Much like not dining alone with women and avoiding parties with raucous behavior. Much like Pence's fifteen year-old suggestion.
Nothing wrong with that at all, it makes perfect sense. But we have multiple goals in mind. So far, we are protecting women from exploitation (with laws) and men are protecting themselves from false accusations by precautionary behavior which limits their contact with women in circumstances where false accusations can be made and false inferences might be conjured.
What is missing is the impact such precautionary behavior has on the careers of women being protected by the law. If it is much easier (less risky more rewarding) for males to spend time with one another, network with one another, mentor one another, that is what will happen. The law intended to protect women from harassment accidentally ends up potentially harming their careers by precluding the opportunity for such beneficial activities.
I am not saying the law is wrong and most certainly not saying that the goal is wrong. I am acknowledging that the law is a blunt instrument that can sometimes drive unintended outcomes which are not only not beneficial but are actually harmful.
Pence's comments have been broadly interpreted by the postmodernist secular left as an example of a stupid male who cannot trust himself to control his animal urges. I think this misses entirely the pragmatic dimension discussed above. Even if you are perfectly confident in your own self-control, you cannot predict or govern the behaviors of others, and even more critically, the faulty inferences of others.
I also think this is a perfect illustration of the ignorance pointed out by Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind and his proposed Moral Foundations framework. Wikipedia has a reasonable summary here.
One of the implications discussed in The Righteous Mind is that liberals, conservatives and libertarians can end up at cross purposes because of differing comprehensions. Simplistically, liberals care deeply and equally about Care and Fairness whereas conservatives regard Care and Fairness as important but are also oriented towards Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity. Libertarians tend to weight Care, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority, Sanctity, and Liberty equally.
Haidt pointed out that one of the challenges for Liberals is that their moral equations are pretty straight-forward in terms of optimizing Care and Fairness (just two variables) whereas the equations for Conservatives, Moderates and Libertarians are much more complex with trade-offs between all six moral dimensions. Liberals tend to be blind to the broader spectrum of moral decision-making which might be why Pence's personal heuristics seem so incomprehensible to them.
But before we get too far into the philosophical weeds, let's not forget that there is a legitimate pragmatic concern - avoiding even the appearance of impropriety when the consequences can be high. Pence's comment is from 2002 but look at what happened to John McCain in 2008 in his campaign for the presidency. The New York Times published an allegation based on the anonymous mutterings of two aggrieved former employees of McCain, strongly implying that there was an affair between John McCain and a female lobbyist. John McCain denied it, his wife denied it, the lobbyist denied it, McCain's Republican competitors denied it, his office staff denied it and even some Democratic colleagues denied it.
Eventually, the NYT had to print a retraction clarifying that they had not intended to imply that there was an affair. What was the basis for the allegation? - simply that it was suspicious that McCain would be seen with a female lobbyist. Pence's heuristics look pretty prescient in those circumstances.
To wrap this up, there is a very interesting tweet storm from a postmodernist secular left taking his fellow travelers to task about the behavior as inconsistent with their own positions. The tweet is here:
1. A long tweet storm to follow about this surprisingly intense controversy about Mike Pence's marital habits.— Damon Linker (@DamonLinker) March 31, 2017
I think Linker still misses some of the other dimensions I have mentioned above but this is an interesting discourse on its own terms.
For those unwilling to venture into Twitter, my text version follows. My paragraph breaks.
Damon Linker - A long tweet storm to follow about this surprisingly intense controversy about Mike Pence's marital habits.While I think Linker ignores the pragmatic consequence of our changes in laws and their unintended consequences, I think he does make a very good argument for the angle he is focusing on.
The man currently VPOTUS said 15 years ago that he never dines alone w another woman, or attends an event where alcohol is being served. The implication being that this could place him in a condition of temptation with someone other than his wife. I'm a secular liberal & think it's a bit extreme, yet I don't find this scandalous. In fact, I consider it admirable.
But not many other secular liberals, who have been expressing unrestrained outrage, feel this way. The question is why. I think it's because this difference is rooted in profoundly different, perhaps incompatible, anthropologies (visions of human nature). For Pence, I surmise, human beings are fallen, prone to temptation and sin, in a state of moral degradation. Place a man alone with a woman w no one around, esp if he's in a position of power, & he'll be tempted to be unfaithful to his wife.
Confronted w facts of human nature, there are 2 options: first, faith in God, which is real and powerful, but (given sin) unreliable. Second option: act to avoid temptation. Don't place yourself in a situation where you'll be tempted to betray your marital vows.
The secular liberal outlook is very different. It is, broadly speaking, Kantian. Despite obsession w sex, gender, etc., we believe morality involves overcoming bodily inclination/desires, which everyone is free to do. So there's no reason not to immerse ourselves in sexualized culture, have (married) men & women work tog in all settings (din w alcohol). They might experience temptation, but there are internalized universalizable moral principles like "don't cheat!" to keep them in line.
One morality-abiding, bodily transcending subject should be able to have dinner w another w/o incident. Right? This shld be possible, b/c as Kant says, it must be possible to do what ought to be done, follow principle, overcome nat inclination. Pence's way of living denies all of this. It denies we're able to restrain ourselves with any reliability. We need God's help, and we need to keep ourselves away from situations in which we will be tempted to cheat.
I could understand if secular liberal Kantians rolled their eyes at Pence. But why the anger about it? I don't buy that it's because of a grand injustice to women. He could meet w a woman at the office with coworkers around. Why isn't that an acceptable accommodation? Like how when I teach college, I'm told not to shut my office door with a student. Isn't that the same kind of double standard? Yet there's no outrage. It's seen as a prudent measure to protect young women & male profs.
The reax w Pence is disproportionate, even given the intensity of partisan rancor at the moment. So what's really at stake?
I think secular libs intuitively understand their Kantian outlook is being challenged by Pence's behavior. And there is considerable, obvious evidence on Pence's side. From T Kennedy @ Chappaquiddick, B Clinton & the blue dress to campus sexual assault, not to mention behavior outside modern West, Everywhere we see examples of people (esp men) NOT acting like good Kantians, ignoring universal principles, acting on desires.
The secular liberal response is invariably to implore the bad actors, "Act better! Do what's right!" And yes, wouldn't that be nice? But what if this is a battle that can never be fully won on these terms? What if it's *possible* to act morally w/o external social/cultural support, but more diff than most secular liberals like to believe? What if morality requires more social & cultural supports & encouragement than secular liberals are willing to live with? What if morality requires social & cultural supports that limit individual freedom & that secular liberals are unwilling forgo?
In that case, Pence's simple rules for marital living become an enormous challenge and provocation. He's called the liberal bluff. Like saying: "If you want to make marital fidelity more likely, you might need to accept less freedom." And that is simply an unacceptable proposition. Hence the anger, the mockery, the derision, the defensiveness.
It's the response of someone who's been forced to confront possibility that all good things might not go together as easily as hoped. The freedom of atomistic individualism can be delightful, but it requires/presumes an awful lot from people. Perhaps it requires far more than most of them can give, at least with any reliability. Perhaps Pence's more morally traditional outlook has something in its favor—namely, realism.
That would mean the liberal outlook is more fragile, weaker in its foundations than most liberals are willing to accept. And when you point that out to someone who's heavily invested in that outlook, response is what we've seen: anger and defensiveness.
FWIW, I think liberalism is better off being made aware of its weak spots, and incorporating norms/practices that shore them up. Even if that req (modestly!) curtailing liberal individualism. In that sense, the (somewhat extreme) Pence example is salutary. //ENDIT
I would guess that all of the following are constituent elements to the storm in a teacup around what seems so mundane and innocuous as advice to maintain probity and forestall temptation.
1. Postmodernist secular liberals are uncomprehending of those with wider moral dimensions.
2. The economic and political dimensions of communism have failed while market economies and republican and parliamentary democracies have succeeded.
3. The promise of multiculturalism has failed.
4. Cultural relativism has failed.
5. The promise and success of traditional bourgeoise values has been demonstrated (see Coming Apart by Charles Murray) repeatedly.
6. The failure to legislate good manners (culture and values).
7. Statism is under attack across the OECD.
8. Elitist technocrats have failed to deliver on their promise of competency.
9. Culture and values are a necessary complement to the law.
10. Reality trumps theory.
11. Human nature is both tragic and wondrous.
12. Statist determinism fails to function in a tragic human system.
UPDATE: Emma Green set a standard for reporting not achieved by her fellow Atlantic Monthly journalist Olga Khazan. Khazan's article is your typical reflexive postmodernist hit piece on anyone deviant from the left orthodoxy. As one commenter observes - "The comments on the Atlantic never disappoint! Articles=trash; comments= excellent!"
The number one rated comment sums up the postmodernist dilemma:
1. Greatly expand definition of sexual harassment.
2. Make any accusation of sexual harassment career-ending.
3. Proclaim that women should always be believed when they accuse a man.
4. Complain that men won't have 1-on-1 meetings with women.