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 makes statements;
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 a balancing act among the different arguments vying inside our private selves. The result can be determined by our fear of saying the wrong thing. But if we are to confine the reptile to its cave, we need to give expression not just to that guarded public self, but also to that indecisive, sometimes inconvenient 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, and that they aren’t to blame if men react badly. Women can state this view so emphatically that a man taking exception is reduced to having his public self say something as unctuous as, “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 self-control. Actually, it doesn’t take much. In the nineteenth century, the mere glimpse of a woman’s ankle below long skirts was all a man needed to get hot and bothered. When it comes to clothing, this private self might acknowledge, women can’t win. Conservative Islam deems even a woman’s face such a temptation to evil that Muslim women, forced to carry the burden of men’s undependable impulse control, are veiled behind suffocating clothing despite living in desert climates.
Can any of this be said aloud? Only in the most trusted, open-minded company where it is understood that thought doesn’t necessarily equal action.
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 grab 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 free itself from the shackles of the other two selves. It’s why, while America’s treasured freedom of speech protects expression by our public and private selves, it grants no such protection to the reptile inside us when it cries “Fire” in a crowded theater or otherwise incites mayhem.
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 an immigrant myself, albeit fully documented and long since a citizen. By contrast, many other immigrants who also complied with legal immigration requirements denounce those who got in by stealth. My waffling private self acknowledges the strength of their feelings. It also 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. But in company, I keep my misgivings mostly to myself for fear that I will be mistaken for a radical reactionary. Likewise, a social conservative won’t concede the harsh consequences of limiting immigration for fear of looking like a namby-pamby liberal. As a result, there’s no debate; just yelling across party lines.
The rift has led to social upheaval at all levels and over disagreements not obviously related to immigration, culminating in the United States in the January 6, 2021 Capitol riot, a true reptilian triumph.
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 free from its cave.
Note: This is a revised version of an essay I posted on February 2, 2021.