The people’s philosopher, Alain de Botton, has been considering Rolf Harris and his wandering hands. In de Botton’s funny-yet-serious spoof of newspapers The Philosophers’ Mail, he takes his customary rosy view of things.
The Harris case and others like it, he argues, show that we are becoming kinder as a society.
These are times of moral progress. We have become more and more sensitive to, and concerned about, the suffering of others. In 1976 many a man – a branch manager of the Municipal Bank in Birmingham or a Professor of Literature at the University of East Anglia –
Seems oddly specific, that, but moving swiftly along.
– would have thought nothing of groping their secretaries’ bottoms. They’d have seen it as a bit of harmless fun or even considered it a perk of the job… We are now so much more receptive to the feelings of others, so much more worried about possible harm.
The war on groping is just the start of what de Botton calls ‘the long march of kindness’. More moral progresss is on its way.
This week perhaps two million men in the UK will at some high point of frustration call their wives, girlfriends and partners a c*** ….Yet it could well be that in twenty-five years time, in 2039, such an outburst will be something to be brought to the attention of the police.
At this point, I begin to feel faintly bullied myself. Are we really to understand that one day, in the happy republic of Bottonia, society will be so nice that calling our partners a c*** will land us in front of the beak, with our victims sobbing that being called a c*** drove them to drink, or ruined their lives? And that the world will be a gentler, kinder place as a result?
It is also faintly odd that the de Botton agrument is all about male guilt. Those two million men (who’s counting, by the way?) who this week call their partner a c*** might presumably have been called a p**** or a d*** or even a d******** themselves. Where is the evidence for de Botton’s assumption that women are leading us down the road on the Long March of Kindness, while men have to be kicked and dragged towards niceness?
In fact, is there really any reason to think that society is kinder than it was 40 years ago? Look at the response, gloating and sanctimonious, that surrounds the humiliation in court of yesterdays’ family favourites, today’s villains. Or the growing intolerance towards those of different faiths. Or – the most telling indicator of all – the general tone of debate and interaction online and in the press.
More and more sensitive? Really?
Then there is the tricky matter of groping. I’m not sure whether the wandering hands of man were regarded as a ‘perk of the job’ in the 1970s. It is too easy to look back on those times and see men as predators, women as fearful victims. Then as now, gropers were seen as, at best, pathetic inadequates, at worst bullies. There may or may not have been more misbehaviour – they were certainly gropey times – but the convenient contemporary view of 1970s man as a neanderthal dolt taking advantage of quaking female prey, regularly trotted out in today’s press and accepted by Alain de Botton, is stupid and inaccurate.
All the same, as the columnist Camilla Long pointed out on Twitter:
Reporting of sexual assault is usually sanitised and does not relate the full horror of what happened. See also: Clifford
A grope, in other words, is never just a grope. It is less about sex than about male power. A woman – or, more seriously, a girl – is being shown that a man can help himself to her body and she can do nothing about it. It is the ultimate expression of unspoken, intimate domination. Nobody should be surprised that the girls who learned that horrible lesson at a young age from a man whom the world regarded as a model of twinkly jolliness can have been so traumatised.
As we march towards Bottonia, men are slowly being forced to understand that copping a feel, uninvited, is loathsome, a form of nasty covert aggression.
Is than yet another sign that we are all getting kinder, though? I fear not.