A member of my writing group recently sought to defend a character for blaming his bad behavior on a woman character’s provocative clothes: “He’s obviously mad at her for the sequined dress stunt, but shouldn’t he be?”
“That doesn’t justify rape,” said a woman in the group.
“He didn’t rape her,” the beleaguered author said.
That discussion got me mulling over how honest we really are when we talk about controversial subjects. We tend to look at honesty as a binary issue: Either we’re being honest or we aren’t. Absolutely, setting aside interesting philosophical discussions of what we can and can’t be sure we know, our daily lives depend on things and events we call facts. During daylight hours, the sun is shining, hidden by cloud or shrouded in mist. But many subjects are debatable.
It seems to me that each of us is three selves:
The public self who tells others what they think;
The private self who weighs various viewpoints without reaching a definite conclusion; and
The reptilian third, whose instincts hiss away under the surface.
What our public selves say aloud amounts to some kind of balancing act among the different arguments vying inside our private selves, along with our fear of saying the wrong thing. If we are to confine the reptile to its cave, we need to allow equal expression to that private self.
It’s my sense that the prevailing view in liberal circles is that women shouldn’t fear to wear what they feel like, however revealing, and that they aren’t to blame if men react badly. Women can state this view so emphatically that a man taking any exception is reduced to having his public self say things like, “Of course it doesn’t justify rape.”
Underneath, however, that man’s private self might be saying that although the women would be right in an ideal world, those who dress in certain ways can find themselves in danger. There were the women who, in the fondly-remembered pre-COVID-19 days, wore short skirts to dance clubs, but to be safe, went there and back by cab.
The private self might even acknowledge his fear that excitement on seeing female flesh could lead, if the stars so align, to the undoing of his usual even temperament. Can this be said aloud? Not in any but the most trusted company.
Such internal debates have no end. Also going on inside this private self might be a recognition that women can’t win. He might recall that in the nineteenth century, men got hot and bothered on glimpsing a woman’s ankle under long skirts. More evidence that nature has designed heterosexual males to go berserk over the display of any part of a woman’s body. Presumably, it’s because men can’t be trusted to control their impulses that conservative Islam deems the revealing of even a woman’s face too dangerous. Afflicted with the burden of impulse control, Muslim women are thus hidden behind suffocating clothing despite living in desert climates.
There’s little, if any, consistency in these various private self’s thoughts. But this very inconsistency tells us, if we care to listen, that our public selves don’t always get it right.
Which brings me to the third self: the reptile within us, the creature that knows what it wants and, if allowed, will take it regardless of consequences. As Freud contended in Civilization and its Discontents, society oppresses this reptile, forcing it most of the time to lurk in a cave deep inside us. It knows civilization isn’t alone in despising it; even its own master does. But all the while, it fervently seeks to rattle the cages of the other two selves. If those other two selves get beaten down enough, it will break free and take over.
This is why, while our treasured freedom of speech protects expression by our public and private selves, it grants no such protection to the reptile, which would cry “Fire” in a crowded theater, engage in sexual assault and commit untold other mayhem. The problem is that, while the right to free speech extends to our public and private selves, we often take it on ourselves to censor that private self.
The fundamental rift in societies across the world in recent years has been over immigration. One set of public voices decries immigrants; the other sings their praises. But who among us finds ourselves on this or that side of the divide isn’t easily predictable. For example, I favor liberal immigration policies—after all, I’m one myself, albeit fully documented and now a citizen. By contrast, many other immigrants who also complied with legal immigration requirements denounce those who got in by stealth. My private, dithering self acknowledges the strength of their feelings. It recognizes that mass immigration can be socially disruptive, as demonstrated in the violence we’ve recently witnessed in Europe and the United States against immigrants from different religious and ethnic groups. The rift has led to social upheaval at all levels and over disagreements not obviously related to immigration, culminating here in America in the Capital riot.
Hating to look like namby-pamby fools, we censor that uncertain private self. But we can’t afford to. If we are to hold back the reptile, we must let the private self speak rather than let the public self brazenly charge ahead with its usual binary claims.
In the process of opening up to our internal debates and doubts, we make ourselves better listeners. When I don’t hear my questioning private self and you don’t hear yours, and as a result I don’t hear you and you don’t hear me, the reptile slithers out of its cave.