Much breath has been expended criticising Sadiq Khan’s recent “Say maaaate to a mate” campaign. Depending which side of the debate critics are on, the argument is likely to be about how effective the campaign is or whether meddling in this way is appropriate use of public money. But let’s put these questions aside for now and look a little more dispassionately at some of the underlying social/moral issues at stake here and whether the campaign is founded on a coherent moral basis.
Ostensibly Khan’s campaign is against misogyny which, all things being equal, makes it commendable. More specifically the scenario addressed by the campaign is a man saying to his mates in relation to a woman who is wearing a short skirt (or is otherwise provocatively dressed in his view) that he has sexual desires towards her and/or that it is her intention to provoke such. The implied message is that this is not only wrong, but something it is the responsibility of his mates to address my admonishing him. The first thing to note here is that the campaign is addressed not to the purported misogynists in an attempt to change their behaviour but to their friends in an attempt to “nudge” them instead. The second observation is that the scope and context of what behaviour is deemed problematic are not clearly defined, so it becomes the responsibility of each of the “mates” to decide where to draw that line.
Setting the emotive issue of misogyny aside, let’s ask ourselves how reasonable and workable this suggestion is in practice. First off, it is implied that each of your friends has not only a right but a duty to decide and make clear to you what kind of things they believe it is appropriate for you to say in their company about other people; in other words that they should act as your thought police. We have a word in the English language for such behaviour based on a long history of it in the US and the UK and it is Puritanicalism, the negative connotations of the word immediately reminding us of of the generally shared opinion that it is not a good thing.
It might be argued that a person is only being Puritanical if they are at the same time a bigot and/or a hypocrite. But who when they open their mouths to criticise a friend believe themselves to be bigots or hypocrites? One person’s Puritan is invariably another’s upholder of public morals. Indeed, we have documentary evidence that such Puritanical behaviour was not uncommon and not universally approved of over two thousand years ago from its having led Jesus Christ to admonish against it in his retort: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” (John 8:7) We might surmise a similar retort from the friends of the “mate” who took Khan’s advice to heart that his unsuccessful attempt to “pull a girl” in a similarly short skirt the previous week showed him to be no different in his thinking or behaviour. Indeed they could well make the argument that his acting on his desire rather than only speaking of it to them made him more culpable.
So we see the first big problem with Khan’s campaign in that it puts the onus for deciding what behaviour merits criticism on the shoulders of the targeted individuals; and likewise for the decision how best to express the criticism. (The derision with which the “Maaaate” proposal was met shows that even the campaign’s authors had not judged particularly well what language should be used to this end.) On that basis it faces the risk of being counter-productive. Indeed it is not unlikely that persistent such behaviour could lead to a breakdown in the friendship. Readers doubtless have their own experience over the last few years of incidents of unfriending on Facebook and other platforms on the back of differences over what was perceived as Woke virtue-signalling on one side and calling out offensive language and behaviour on the other. While this effect may have been magnified by the fact the differences often arose in cyberspace, the fact remains that longstanding friendships were damaged or curtailed in the real world as a result. Culture Wars have victims on both sides and it is generally advisable not to stoke the fires unnecessarily, certainly not through a publicly-funded government campaign. Mention could be made also of the way in which the police force has similarly been drawn into policing non-crime “thought crime” in recent years and the question asked whether this has served to increase or decrease the esteem in which they are held.
But even within the narrow scope of the scenario which is ostensibly being set out as a template for how to take a stand against misogynism, there are further, equally serious problems. First, if what the campaign’s initiators are taking issue with is the apparent belief that a woman’s intentions or interest can be inferred from the way she dresses, there is the question of whether such inference is entirely inappropriate. Without looking to take sides here, we observe that the likelihood of such inferences being made is arguably recognised within Islamic culture: Muslim women are expected by tradition to cover their heads with a scarf and often their whole body and even faces in the presence of men other than their husbands for reasons of “modesty”. By this is meant avoiding the arousal of attentions of a sexual nature from those men. It is in this way intrinsic to Islam that women bear a high degree of responsibility for not inadvertently provoking such sexual desire or interest. It is arguably hypocritical of Kahn, therefore, to subscribe implicitly to such a view as a Muslim while at the same time putting the blame for unsolicited sexual interest squarely on the shoulders of men in his advertising campaign.
Otherwise, if the issue being addressed is the man’s proclivities rather than his inferences about the woman’s, there is the further question whether it his his thinking or his giving verbal expression to the same which is problematic. Cognitive science suggests that the thoughts stimulated by the sight of a beautiful woman are in the main involuntary, although the form in which they filter up to our conscious awareness is something over which we may exercise some control. But even then, they are not something over which other people are able to exercise control so cannot reasonably be portrayed as the responsibility of one’s friends to police.
Finally there is the question of whether it is not what is said but the crudeness of the language used to express the thought which is objected to. Here we perhaps get to the nub of the matter as it appears to be the language and the offence that might be taken from such which the authors of the campaign are looking to target as the lowest-hanging fruit. Much of the language guys use when they engage in banter in relation to women is not language they would use were women present; the same could probably be said about women engaging in banter about men. To suggest that such is in itself problematic would effectively impose a requirement to use only context-free universal language which could be guaranteed not to cause offence or embarrassment to anyone outside the conversational group. While some, perhaps many, on the progressive left would likely support such a position and go further, problematising even language used when there was no awareness that offence might be caused, anyone with an ounce of common sense reflecting on such a suggestion must realise it is impracticable. People can and must be afforded the leeway to exercise judgment as to what language is appropriate in what context. Otherwise we will all be constantly looking over our shoulders waiting to be appraised by equity, diversity and inclusion consultants with degrees in postmodern theory (and “nudge” campaigns by political czars) as to which language they are currently proscribing as “microaggressions.”
So, it is suggested, if it is not our wish to be driven further down that road toward a world of Big Brother, now is perhaps the time to stand up and say that enough is enough. We will decide in our own conversations what is the appropriate level of decorum and what language is acceptable. We do not need Puritanical overlords making such decisions on our behalf and enlisting our friends in support of their project to police our private world.