Years ago. A scandal involving sexual harrassment at the university where I worked. A racial element, a power relationship, accusations and denials, and of course the ritual expressions of outrage by administrators eager to appear progressive, responsive and brave at no real cost to themselves. A colleague of mine decided to call out one of these men. “Bob,” he said, reporting the exchange to me afterwards—Bob not the man’s real name. “Bob, over the years, I’ve seen you at functions, at your house, greeting female students. A social kiss, a pat, a little hug, a compliment. Do you not think if I were to launch an inquiry, quiz these women closely, I would not find a number willing to say they were made to feel uncomfortable? Creeped out, even?”
I think about this sometimes. A bit of humility in one’s moral posturing cannot be amiss. Dare one say it is deeply Christian? The inventory-exercise, the self-examination, for those insidious sins particularly of hypocrisy and spiritual pride? Put another way, however, is the lesson not also about empathy, and imagination. Routinely seeing the world as it might appear to another. A thing which is harder graft than one might suppose. Not a matter of sentiment, but of observation and discipline.
It has been a long while since I have been in any position of power or authority. But there are still responsibilities. In the shops. On the pavement. In corridors and on the lift. Not just making way for people, or mouthing pleasantries when required, but also considering how slowing down or speeding up might be construed as stalking, how catching an eye, or not, might be construed as provocative, a fixed stare as ogling. A suitable public mien, for a man of any age, consists of purpose and mild distraction. What my father taught us as a question of prudence on the mean streets of New York, is also good manners.
Curiously enough, purpose and mild distraction have also heuristic value. One learns things otherwise missed. I got this aged ten or so from Mr. Andersen, pillar of Bethelship Methodist in Brooklyn, and master of the Boy Scout troop sponsored by the church. On our camping trips to the Catskills, Mr. Andersen, a lean, bronzed, Hawkeye of a man, taught us how to sharpen an axe, how to carry it safely, the correct, and courteous, way to hand it to another. He also taught us the art of moving silently and reverently in the wood. Step gingerly lest a twig snap, walk around rather than over an obstacle. Most importantly, he said, was to keep your gaze unfocussed, scan in sweeps, ignore the obvious, open yourself to those small, brief flickers of life that are everywhere around you.