Every once in a long while we have a media frenzy on political correctness that actually ends the way it should, leaving the pundits and special-interest groups that tried to hitch their wagons to it floundering for traction. Including this reporter. We were supposed to be publishing “Hardwired for Aggression Part 2: Norms and Bullying” this week. However, it’s such a nice, sunny summer, and it’s so wonderful to have a good news item to report (and because this one had a happy ending, everyone will have forgotten about it by next week), we’ve decided to run this instead. Bullying and Aggression will still be around next week.
The inciting event happened last weekend at the Squamish Valley Music Festival, when a young man jumped into the camera shot with a CBC reporter, kissed her and snapped a selfie. She was not amused, and turned the matter over to the police.
There were two immediate reactions. The first was, “Get over it, chickie. It’s a music festival.” The second; “She’s been sexually assaulted.” Picture the loudmouths on both sides swarming for the 15 seconds of infamy they deserve.
By Tuesday it had all blown over. Not to spoil your anticipation, but the guy came forward voluntarily. He stated that he realized he had stepped over the line and apologized profusely. The reporter said that was exactly what she had been hoping for, accepted the apology and asked the police to drop the investigation. Game over, no more media hype, no more coverage.
The positive result is that a message has been sent and, we hope, received by the general public. In a highly publicized incident, a line has been drawn. The bar of appropriate behaviour has been raised an infinitesimal amount, and that is all to the good.
But in between, there was enough time for a lot of unpleasant and just plain stupid things to be said. Let’s deal with each side of the complaint.
1. Professional and Personal
The victim’s first response, and the public reaction to it, deals with the media situation, and the reporter’s professional responsibilities. Face it. News reporting organizations don’t place their reporters on camera in the middle of the crowd by mistake. They are trying to infuse an immediacy and a drama into their reports, a large part of which is the risk that some idiot from the general public will jump in and do something stupid. And the public often obliges. Note the young woman who slipped into the shot just after the kiss and blew a kiss of her own to the camera. Accepted, even desired procedure. The reporter is expected to deal with this.
The young reporter’s first reactions showed clearly that part of her anger was at being interrupted. She talked about her focus on her presentation and her surprise at the distraction. From that point of view, she did not handle the total situation with the greatest of skill. I suspect that, with five or ten years experience she will look back on that event and chuckle at herself. However, she kept her cool on camera. So no harm done there.
As everybody knows (or is supposed to know), in an unstructured situation it is up to those who choose to involve themselves to make choices. Young people in situations like music events have socially and chemically loosened inhibitions, and they often make poor choices, as this young man did.
But there is one boundary that may not be stepped across in any interaction with strangers, and this boundary is widely accepted in our society and many others. YOU MAY NOT MAKE PHYSICAL CONTACT. This precept goes back at least a hundred years to Oliver Wendell Holmes; “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.” You can shout slogans, wave flags, and stick your ugly mug into the camera and blow kisses, but you MAY NOT TOUCH THE REPORTER. The guy should have known it; that is the realization he came to, which he enunciated clearly in his apology. The reporter, whose rightful surprise and anger may be assumed to stem from the fact that her personal sanctity had been violated, felt vindicated by his awareness of his mistake, and thus was able to forgive the young man his trespass.
There was a second level to this young man’s error that gave it media legs and made the repercussions more serious for him. The action he took was, however innocently intended, one of a sexual nature. Now, a quick kiss on the cheek is probably one of the least noxious intrusions of that sort, and in many societies is considered a standard greeting. However, the “just a kiss” excuse has been used regularly by harassers on their victims, and unfortunately accepted at face value by far too many people. One responder to the CBC radio program said, “At least he didn’t pat her butt,” which demonstrated that yes, there are certain unwritten but generally accepted rules regarding this sort of interaction.
But Let’s Not Go Overboard
A second contributor to the radio program, a woman who runs a feminist blog, used the “sexual assault” term frequently. I suggest that is a mistake. If this woman was more concerned with teaching society to behave in more appropriate ways than she was in getting applause and blog hits from her target audience, she would think of the effect of using that term.
In the first place, she is legally inaccurate. “Sexual Assault” is a very specific term in law, and an action like the one we are speaking of would never be prosecuted under that charge. Harassment, yes. Interference of some sort, of course. But not sexual assault. Speaking for myself, I thought that everything the woman was saying was right on the money until she used that term. At that point my reaction was, “Politics and media hype,” and I stopped caring what she said. I’m sure this was the reaction of many of the people who she should have been targeting. Lesson: fanatics don’t persuade anyone, while reasonable actions might.
The Most Important Rule
But this does not detract from the reporter’s original reaction. She had been the subject of an unpleasant professional and personal intrusion with sexual connotations, and she had every right to be upset. Another precept that we must not forget is that in situations of harassment, bullying, and other intrusions it is the reaction of the recipient, not the intention of the perpetrator, that must be considered first. A competent adult is expected to predict the effect of his or her actions on another person, a fact that this incident has reminded us one more time.
Fortunately for this reporter, the way she handled the situation is not likely to cause her any problems with her professional standing. The CBC brass, in the wake of their terrible handling of the Jian Ghomeshi scandal, will be very happy to demonstrate their defence of their reporters.
So “Get over it, chickie,” is not an appropriate response, and neither is screaming “sexual assault.” Somebody made a mistake, and very publicly admitted the mistake, stating the hope that others would not make the same error. The person affected perceived an honest apology and accepted it. Only the fact that the incident shone a light on an important point in public behaviour gave it enough importance to deserve the nation-wide media coverage it received.
Isn’t it nice that sometimes things actually work out in a logical and intelligent way? It almost gives me hope for the human race.