Late last night, the previous post regarding the video showing a woman being repeatedly shouted at by rude and intrusive males as she silently walked down New York City streets sparked an ancient memory from my past.
The incident before my career shift into ethics, indeed before I was married. I was in Georgetown on a lovely fall day (like this one), and it had been a lousty week. I was feeling lost and depressed. Suddenly I was aware of the young woman walking slightly ahead of me toward the corner of Wisconsin and M streets, Georgetown Central. She wasn’t merely beautiful, but heart-stoppingly beautiful, the kind of rare combination of perfect genetics aesthetic taste who makes one realize how dishonest Hollywood’s representation of humanity is. Maybe this young woman would have blended into the scenery in Tinseltown, but I doubt it very much. Greek myths described how mortals, if they saw a god or goddess in their true form, would be instantly burned to ash, and that was almost the effect this woman had on me.
Yet she did not have the aura of a star or a model who was aware that she was gorgeous and conscious of her effect on those around her—I have seen that many times. Beautiful people generally know they are beautiful and are used to being treated differently because of it; they sometimes have a “leave me alone” force field around them, and this woman didn’t have that either. For some reason, perhaps because the jolt she had given me renewed my flagging enthusiasm for life in general at that moment—I literally never do this, not before and not since—when we reached the corner together, I turned to her and said, as I recall it,
“Excuse me, I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but your are incredibly lovely, and seeing you today has made me happy, when I was anything but happy before. I just wanted to say thank you.”
Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz:
Was this wrong?
You will note that I did not ask whether it was harassment. It certainly could have been, since harassment is the eye of the target of attention. There is no question that had the woman been part of the Hollaback video project, I would have been filmed and counted as one of those heckling her.
I was not attempting to flirt with her—fat chance—and our paths parted at the corner forever. I have been told stories by female friends about how a kind or complimentary word from strangers on the street, uttered politely, made them feel good about themselves; indeed, I remember being made happy once in New York City when a stranger stopped me and said, with a huge smile on his face, “Buddy, I love your chapeau!” But the Golden Rule is tricky to apply here: while I might be cheered by the compliment on my appearance by a stranger, that is largely because I am not used to getting such praise. Would I feel the same if a hundred strangers a day imposed on my attention and did the same? Then the ethics calculation becomes more Kant than Jesus. If everybody acknowledged passing beauty as I did, life in public would be unendurable for such women.
Of course, the Rule of Universality is sometimes absurd, and this might be one of those instances. If everyone politely yielded to the person next to them when going through a door, nobody would get into a room.
Was this a selfless act on my part? Not entirely, no. I remember feeling that I was in debt to this women, and that I had to repay that debt somehow, or at least acknowledge it. That was necessary to make me feel better, in part. I would not have said anything, however, if I wasn’t reasonably sure that I could make my expression of appreciation non-threatening and welcome.
I know: that’s what all the boors on the video would say too.
I won’t leave you in suspense any longer: this is what happened next.
The young woman looked directly at me—again, my insides flipped over, for she was even more beautiful than I had thought—and she smiled. Then she said, as I recall it, “That’s very nice. Thank you.” Then she smiled again. The light changed, she crossed the street, and walked out of my life and into my memories.
Maybe she really did appreciate what I said. Maybe she had been having a bad day too, and my spontaneous compliment was well timed. Or maybe she decided to humor the jerk who she thought was hitting on her, because he might be dangerous.
Maybe I was the 28th person that day who had commented on her appearance, and she was secretly thinking about gaining 40 pounds, cutting off her hair and throwing acid in her face just so she could be left alone. Maybe my words were the tipping point that made her into a fire-breathing feminist activist. Maybe they convinced her that she was sick of men and would hence forth seek out lesbian romance.
Maybe she had been considering going to New York and seeking a modelling career, or Hollywood to see if she could be “discovered,” and her chance meeting with me eliminated her remaining doubts.
Whatever her response was, it was moral luck. She might have told me to fuck off, slapped my face, or called for the police. All I can say today is that I would never do this again for fear that my gesture would be received as harassment. The jerks and boors have made it impossible to distinguish easily between kindness and intrusion. In this culture, an open expression of admiration from a stranger is socially unacceptable, and even threatening.
I think that’s tragic.