The media circus that has surrounded US Senator Larry Craig (R-Idaho) with his guilty plea for lewd conduct in a Minneapolis airport men’s room, followed by his attempt to withdraw it, and his resignation from the Senate followed by his attempt to withdraw that too, has obscured some of the underlying issues surrounding what is admittedly an unfortunate event. The main one is how things that should be treated similarly are treated wildly differently depending on whether or not they conform to prevailing behavioral norms.
The police report on the events leading up to the arrest of Craig reveals a world in which gay liaisons are established by means of subtle codes and signals. The signals that Craig supposedly sent out to the undercover officer were of such a nature that those who are not gay or not privy to these cues would probably be oblivious to what was going on around them or baffled by what seemed to be merely eccentric or annoying behavior.
Most of us are not aware of the many secret worlds that are going on all around us. What might seem to us to be a normal city scene with people going about their lawful business may reveal, to someone in the know, scenes of drug activity, prostitution, theft, and other covert activities, all being accomplished by the subtle codes and signals exchanged by people who have established this secret language.
Assuming the police report is true, what seems to have occurred in the Craig case is that he was sending out a subtle invitation to someone he hoped was also gay. But he was either particularly obtuse in not recognizing that his advances were not being reciprocated or the undercover officer gave out conflicting signals of his own.
But it is not clear that what happened raised this event to the level where the police should have been called in. After all, similar sorts of encounters are commonplace in heterosexual situations. I am sure that women routinely experience subtle (and not so subtle) sexual overtures and invitations from men bars and other public places, and the men doing so can be confident that the women at the receiving end are not undercover officers, and even if they are, that they will not be arrested.
Although women may find such overtures offensive, most are unlikely to call in the police unless it reaches the level of serious harassment, because it is unlikely that their complaints will be taken seriously. Men even tend to feel that women should be flattered by being thus approached by them, that it is a tribute of sorts to their attractiveness. But when heterosexual men are similarly propositioned by gay men, they seem to take offense and call for the gendarmes to intervene. It seems like women are supposed to accept or even welcome such advances by men, and respond according to the unwritten ‘rules of the game’ by accepting or rejecting the overtures without calling the authorities, while men feel that it is intolerable to be similarly approached by other men, and have a right to be protected from them.
This kind of double standard happens when society sets norms of behavior that are not based on general principles but instead on what a dominant group finds acceptable. The seemingly harsh response to Craig’s actions can be seen as being due to us currently living in a world of standards largely established by male heterosexuals.
It is similar to religion in public life. Speaking publicly about one’s faith in god, asking people to pray at public events, wearing religious symbols, providing tax exemptions to religious groups and activities, invoking god as an explanation for random events, are all seen as acceptable, even meritorious. Books about how religion and god have positively influenced people’s lives are routinely published and have good sales. But when atheists start speaking publicly about their disbelief in god and write books to that effect, people question why they are so ‘militant’ and ‘forcing’ their views on others.
For example, almost every hotel room in America has a Bible in it. What do you think the response would be if atheists wrote up a small booklet laying out the case for the non-existence of god, and asked hotels for permission to put one in each room?
It seems as if atheists are supposed to accept without complaint the religious messages that they are constantly bombarded by in public life but religious people feel that they have a right to be shielded from atheistic ideas.
These kinds of double standards are pervasive and so taken for granted that we often do not recognize their existence. This is why I always find it useful in such situations, before forming a judgment, to switch the identities and characteristics of the protagonists and ask how I would react then. This strategy helps to unearth ones own biases and prejudices and helps to get at the underlying principles that should be used in determining the appropriate response.
POST SCRIPT: Double standards
While we are on the subject of the Craig affair, here’s a Tom Tomorrow cartoon that highlights the hypocritical morality that suffuses public life.