The Rules We Don’t Follow …

The hugging thing is coming up again, and even though it’s been talked about at many places I’d like to talk about Greta Christina’s take, because while it supports the policy I think it best demonstrates what’s wrong with it. I’ll also mention this in context of Lousy Canuck’s take on Dawkins’ comment, because what we’ll see is that for the most part Greta Christina and Richard Dawkins are saying the same thing, even though Greta Christina, at least, will think she isn’t, and as we’ll see what they actually disagree about is how official this is all supposed to be.

So, Greta Christina went to a conference that, presumably, has as strong a rule about unwanted touching as the American Atheists have:

I was at the Secular Student Alliance national conference last weekend. A code of conduct was in place, one that was well-publicized. And the social interaction at the conference was anything but chilly. It was warm, friendly, collegial, affectionate, enthusiastic, and inspired. And yes, there was plenty of both handshaking and hugging going on throughout the weekend. (I assume there was plenty of hooking up going on as well, but I don’t know that for certain.)

Well, then perhaps it was simply the case that people weren’t following the rules, but no one reported it. And this will be further supported by what she says later:

Here’s how it works.

When you want to shake someone’s hand, you don’t reach out and grab their hand without getting their consent. You extend your own hand, in a gesture that indicates an invitation to shake yours, which they can accept or not. If they say, “Sorry, but I don’t shake hands,” or, “I have arthritis, I can’t shake hands,” or something along those lines… it’s slightly awkward, but it’s no worse than that.

If you do shake people’s hands by reaching out and grabbing their hand… you’re doing it wrong.

Now, to hugs.

See above. It’s almost exactly the same.

When you want to hug someone, you don’t reach out and grab them without warning and without getting their consent. You open your arms, in a gesture that indicates an invitation to hug you, which they can accept or not. If they say, “Sorry, but I don’t want to hug you,” or “I’m not comfortable hugging strangers,” or something along those lines… it’s slightly awkward, but it’s no worse than that.

If you do hug people by reaching out and grabbing them without warning… you’re doing it wrong.

But all of these involve the basic normal mechanisms for that sort of thing. They don’t, in fact, provide explicit and unequivocal consent. You could, in fact, still have doubts if they don’t do anything directly, perhaps only half-heartedly. This isn’t, in fact, really “asking”. Well, it is, kinda, but in a fairly strange and undocumented way.

Why this sort of thing works as asking, when it does, is that it insists on offering an opportunity to hug or handshake, which the other person then has to “accept” by completing the rest of the gesture. But, of course, all of this happens quite quickly, and it may be the case that both start at the same time, or that it moves quickly enough that it could seem like “grabbing without warning”, or it could be not obvious enough — ie not as broad an arm span as you might expect — and so you might have doubts of the offer or … any number of things. Now, don’t get me wrong. I think that these are all quite reasonable cases and aren’t, in fact, cases without consent. The problem is that by the letter of the rules they might not count as asking.

In general, this isn’t going to matter, because in general people aren’t following the rules to the letter. They aren’t looking at the rules and trying to figure out what “asking” means, and if opening your arms counts, or if doing that broad a gesture puts too much pressure on them or if it’s only asking and explicit permission that matter and, hey, if this is a mutual who the heck actually has to ask and … well, all of that stuff. No, what they do is assume that the rules are meant to cover the normal social conventions and rules, and that they know them, and so they can pretty much act the way they normally do and it will all work out. Thus, the way the rules in these codes of conducts work is that they basically expect people to not follow them.

This is bad for at least two groups: a) the people who do actually try to follow the rules as written and b) the people who think they know what the social rules are and actually don’t.

For the former, the problem is that trying to follow the letter of the rules as opposed to the spirit of the rules leaves them acting in ways that don’t fit the normal social conventions, because the rules don’t actually outline the normal social conventions. Thus, they end up being separated even more from the real and reasonable social conventions as they act even less socially appropriately. But the main reason they want to follow the rules is because they want to act according to the real and reasonable social conventions, and act according to those sorts of expectations. And they expect the rules to outline those expectations. And since they don’t, they’re confused about how no one else follows those rules, and how they get funny looks when they do, and even get considered creepy.

For the latter, the problem is that as they act on what they think is reasonable they will fail. And, perhaps, fail badly enough to get called out on not following the rules. However, they’ve clued into the fact that no one actually follows the rules, and will thus wonder why they’re being singled out, and will feel that it has more to do with them than it does with what they did. Only if it can be explained to them what they are doing wrong might they repent of this, but that’s not necessarily likely to happen.

So, Greta Christina concludes with this:

Codes of conduct are not in place to interfere with ordinary social interaction. And they don’t. They are in place to protect people from invasive behavior. Invasive behavior is a real problem at conferences. And some of us would like to talk about that problem, without being met with snide trivializations of it, or being derailed into a petty micro-analysis of tangential issues. Thank you.

She’s right that that’s what the codes of conduct are for, but the problem is that unless they actually properly outline what is ordinary social interaction and what isn’t, then they must rely on the people to do that, starting from the individuals involved and moving all the way up to the organizers and security people who might receive complaints. All of them must properly differentiate ordinary social interaction from invasive behaviour in order to conform to the code of conduct. But the code of conduct itself is supposed to outline that, so that everyone can simply point to the code of conduct to determine if something was actually ordinary social interaction or was invasive. This cannot be left to the personal interpretations of individuals or support staff or organizers. Because if it is, then as has been commented in a few places the normal human biases will come into play: perspective (what others call “privilege”), personal popularity, and poltics, just to name a few.

The rules are there, basically, to intervene when the normal social mechanisms are violated. Essentially, Greta Christina wants the ordinary social norms to be followed, and the things outside of that to be something that people can expect help with. But in the latest Dawkins mess, he says (from Lousy Canuck):

I VERY strongly support the vaccine campaign. And I support spontaneous hugs governed by ordinary unwritten rules of politeness. Problem?

Greta Christina and most, I think, of the people pushing for these codes of conduct also support even spontaneous — ie “just grabbing someone” — governed by the ordinary rules of politeness. So they and Dawkins agree. But Dawkins wants them to be unwritten while they want them to be written. And then people rightly point out that these written rules, in fact, don’t actually capture the ordinary rules of politeness. This is not a problem for people like Greta Christina because they are expecting people to follow the spirit of the rules, not the letter of the rules. But there seems to be no reason to write down the rules in this case, at least, if you aren’t expecting people to follow what’s been written down. You might as well do what Thunderf00t suggested and say something like “If you’re too obnoxious, we can kick you out” if that’s what you’re going to do. Writing down explicit and even detailed rules — ie mentioning hugging explicitly counts — and not making what you wrote down conform to the ordinary rules only leads to inconsistencies when we look at what the rules say, with people doing what the rules say you shouldn’t but it working because it makes sense in those cases and others trying to follow the rules and looking creepy because the rules don’t make sense for those cases.

Full disclosure: in writing this, the cases Greta Christina talked about seemed far more obvious signs of consent than they did on a first skimming, for the reasons I already talked about. But not all cases are going to be that clear, and while I and others might focus on the unclear cases Greta Christina and others will focus on the clearer cases to make our points. It’s just human nature.

Anyway, the upshot of all of this is that rules that are unclear are not better than having no rules at all. In general, if one person’s behaviour is far enough outside the norm to be invasive, others will point out their rudeness, and this should be encouraged. And if one person’s definition of normal behaviour is far out of the norm so that they find invasive things almost everyone else finds normal, then that is something they should work on, either to tolerate it better or make it clearer that for them the norm is a problem. And I say that as someone who really doesn’t like to be touched. I don’t expect others to change their perfectly normal behaviour to suit me, and if the policy tries to do that then it is changing ordinary behaviour, no matter what Greta Christina says.

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2 Responses to “The Rules We Don’t Follow …”

  1. John-Henry Beck Says:

    I think you’re missing a major part of the policies and the reason people like Greta want them in writing. As best I understand it, anyway.
    It’s not so much defining exactly what is harassment as defining what to do when someone feels a need to make a complaint. Both for the person that feels a need to make a complaint, but also for the convention staff to know what to do about it. And, basically, that this results in some assurance to attendees that should they have a need to make a complaint that it won’t be blown off, ignored, or disappear in to limbo.
    Basically, the record keeping of complaints. And keeping records has value in itself. Convention organizers might want to be aware if there is someone out there causing a pattern of problems.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      But then one wouldn’t have to have very specific policies that mention hugging of all things (and touching in general) but just something like “We take harassment seriously. Harassment is defined as [blah]. If you feel harassed, talk to [blah]”. Yes, there are issues with too vague a rule, but being specific to the point where people can’t and aren’t expected to actually follow the rules doesn’t help either.

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