Ethics Quiz: The Beautiful Young Woman In Georgetown


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.

12 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: The Beautiful Young Woman In Georgetown

  1. “The jerks and boors have made it impossible to distinguish easily between kindness and intrusion.”

    Women can distinguish. Well, I’ll speak for myself: I can distinguish. I’ve been harassed everywhere from the street, to the grocery store, to sitting in first class (jerks are everywhere) – and yes, my impulse was to tell the guy to go fuck himself. I tried that once or twice. It only made matters worse. So I generally keep my head down and keep my mouth shut. But on the occasion that I’ve received a sweet, well meaning compliment? It made my day. And it was easy to tell the difference.

    • Great point.

      But there are women who will deny there is a difference as matter of cant and ideology. And to an HR director, “You look nice today/What a pretty blouse/Have you lost weight? You look terrific!/ Have you been working out?”, any of which can be nice or creepy depending on expressions, tones, established credibility, gender, age, marital status, workplace status, etc, it’s easier just to calkl them all “inappropriate.”

  2. “Was this wrong?”

    Short answer: No!
    Long Answer: HELL NO!

    Had you not taken the chance of enduring withering rejection and humiliation, you might be regretting it today.

    I don’t believe the Thought Police will be satisfied until everyone walks around with their necks bent forward and their glassed-over eyes affixed to the ground.

    The proliferation of hand-held “Boop-Beep-Beep” devises, which occupies every waking moment and most can’t leave home without, is hastening that devolution.

  3. Your statement would have lifted my spirits. Recently co-workers and I were talking about the days when we know we are looking “ratty” and we get “Hey, baby, you’re looking fine.” Our consensus was that it means the person isn’t really looking at us, just throwing out some generic bait. Your compliment comes across to me as respectful. You were seeing her as an individual.

    • On the flip side, my former fiancee tells the story of being in town, wearing a new hat and feeling good about herself, when a complete stranger stopped looked at her, said “Yecch!,” and walked on. She said that she just went home, called in sick, and felt horrible the whole day.

      Yes, gratuitously saying “Yecch” like that is mean and unethical.

      • A co-worker who I had had a fairly heated dispute with did just that as she walked past me leaving in an attempt to reignite the dispute. I simply said “good night” in an attempt to defuse things and she screamed “kiss my ass!” Well, that reignited things in short order and but for the intervention of the other lawyers she would have been dead. She told me in so many words that I was lucky she wasn’t married or she’d have her husband take care of me. I told her she was lucky she wasn’t a man or I would fight her on the spot, and in fact I was going to forget that. I picked up one of those huge staplers that you use for 50+ page documents and was going to bring it crashing down on her head, but other people finally intervened, sent her home, and restrained me. She was not fired then, but two weeks later she picked a fight with one of the partners and was gone in 30 minutes. I have no patience for those who look to start trouble.

      • This negative manipulation is so ugly. It serves no purpose but to make someone feel bad about herself. I’ve most often had this type of harassment directed towards me from other women. Whether it’s a boss who wants to throw my presentation off “because I had to save you and I’m in charge of the project” or just a teen mean girl pretending to be an adult.

  4. Several years ago, as I was seated in a restaurant, a gentleman approached me to tell me that he thought I was lovely and he appreciated that I was sitting in his line of vision. He was kind, said what he said and walked away. He didn’t hang over me or ask for a phone number. He was polite, sincere and concise. It was a nice gesture and I remember the encounter positively.

    I agree with the commentor above, most women can distinguish.

  5. There have been TWO times in my entire life I got hooted at. Both I took as compliments (details available on request; interestingly, both were pre- or post-audition so I was semi-dolled up). Neither were close or threatening, but I’ve had a nice compliment like that, too, and appreciated it (also rare). Delivery matters, much like most of human interaction. Even today, depending on the object of your compliment, it might be taken properly. But alas, the a-holes of the world have poisoned the well. Even your nice day-making (for me!) compliment could land in the wrong spot with someone who regularly gets harrassed. Sigh.

  6. Jack,
    No, it was not (and is not) categorically wrong for you to simply take initiative to say something to a stranger that you (and only you) could know is sincere and kind.

    Ethically, it is imperative is to maintain liberty (consistent with other ethical values) to “speak truth to pretty.” That is a variation on speaking truth to power. Both power and beauty can look so irresistibly attractive (even become one and the same) – yet also be so unapproachable and so easily able to exploit ethical behavior to do greater harm – that we must accept the risk of some harm by our verbal initiatives, rather than avoid all risk of harm by a default “ethic” of silence or non-communication. That extreme “ethic” is a presumption of speaker’s guilt, combined with a perverse “Naked Emperor’s Pass.”

    There is no ethical imperative for the opposite extreme of a “Heckler’s Pass.” As with anything, there is always context or environment to consider. You might, or might not, be sufficiently aware of context or environment to make the best choice (to say something, or to keep quiet), in a given situation. That’s the inescapable reality of moral luck. So, even if you said the same thing today that you said years ago, in situations as nearly identical as they could be, what you are doing still is not wrong, whether the consequences are “That’s very nice; thank you,” or stony silence, or “F- off!” or getting pepper sprayed.

    Your story reminds me of a bunch of little things I learned through reading, observing, a little bit of coaching from Mom and Dad, and hard knocks (on me and my buddies), while a young teenager – call them a Young Teen Guy’s Rules of the Road, about boy-girl relations. This is not copied from some handy list I was given when I was 13. But it is at least some of what I remember of what I learned about how to behave “back then,” and put into my own words today. I am acquainted with several young teen guys, but I have no clue how relevant the following is to them and their environment. For all I know, these are as applicable to teen girls today as they were to teen guys in my youth. These barely touch (near their end) on what you were going through on that day years ago, but in their totality combined with a well-learned Golden Rule, I think they guide well in matters of “speaking truth to pretty:”

    Don’t expect a girl to be your girlfriend if you don’t even speak up to her.

    She might speak up to you first, but that still doesn’t mean you can get her to be your girlfriend. She might hate you already. She might hate you more after you speak up.

    You might think you want her for a girlfriend now, just by how she looks. You might think differently, after she talks (or doesn’t talk). Don’t get stuck on her looks.

    She might want you to be her boyfriend more than you want her to be your girlfriend. MIGHT. Assume that is a BIG might, as in, fat chance. Don’t get your hopes up.

    She might want you to be her boyfriend now, or later. Neither now nor later is forever. You change your mind, don’t you? Well, expect that she will, too – can be good or bad.

    You want her all to yourself? Don’t be an idiot. Nobody is anybody’s territory or property. Be a friend – not a tyrant, robot or toy, or vicious guard dog.

    If she is mean to you, don’t sweat. It might not be your fault that she is mean to you. If it is your fault, you might find out why – or, you might not. Life is tough.

    If she is mean to you, flee. Forget her. Don’t just stand there and take it. You’re better than that, maybe better than her. No, she isn’t trying to tell you she wants you.

    You’re not The Last Guy In The World Any Girl Would Be Interested In, just because that one girl you wanted for a girlfriend has rejected you.

    If a girl rejects you, take a deep breath. Relax. Think baseball: A low batting average is not failure. There are millions more fine girls worth knowing. Really.

    If the only girls you want are girls you can’t even get to talk to, that is your fault, not theirs. You don’t have the right to have any girl you want. Quit your wet daydreaming.

    Sometimes, the best-looking girls have ugly guys for boyfriends because all the better-looking guys are too afraid to speak up. Sometimes, they just prefer ugly guys.

    Keep your interests in money and girls far from each other. You can buy plenty of attention from babes, but all you are really doing there is letting babes own you.

    If there is something nice that you want to say to a girl and you don’t speak up, it’s OK, just don’t be silent because you are afraid. It is OK to keep quiet.

    If you are afraid to say something nice to a girl, it’s because you either don’t mean it, or you don’t respect yourself enough (if you respect yourself at all). Kill that fear.

    Don’t do or say to girls what all the other guys are doing and saying, or saying they’re doing or saying, or nagging you to do or say. Do and say what you are comfortable with.

    Never lie.

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