Here is a cautionary tale out of Great Britain, whose ethics comprehension appears to have gone into a tailspin.
In Manchester, England about a year ago, Jamie Griffiths , then a 19-year-old male student, reached out and touched a 17-year-old female classmate’s arm while they were both walking along a city street during the day. Jamie explained to police, which the young woman contacted because of the incident, that he had just wanted to get her attention, introduce himself, and maybe “make a friend.”
Instead, the woman claims, the spontaneous encounter quickly spiraled out of control. As she told the court, according to The Manchester Evening News,
“I was just set on getting home and [reviewing] for my mock exams, but as I was coming over the bridge I saw him facing a hedge and I thought it was really weird. He wasn’t doing anything. He was just facing the hedge, staring at it. As I walked towards him, I was watching him and he suddenly swung round so he was facing me. I remember it happening fast. As soon as he moved, I moved, and I said: ‘stop’ and he touched me on my arm. I sort of jolted out of the way and I went into the road to avoid him and he very quickly walked away…I forgot about it for a while because I had my exams. I just thought it was weird behavior.” She went to the police and reported the episode. Then there was a second. This time, the 17-year-old was was walking to school when Griffiths walked in front of her and touched her side, staying in contact, she said, for about three seconds. “He smirked at me, he didn’t stop, he just touched me and walked off and I broke down crying in the street—it was quite traumatic.”
She and her mother filed a crime report. The student was traumatized by the encounters, she says. “Every time I started working I would cry because I would think of it. I felt very unsafe, even in my own home.”
A magistrate convicted Jamie Griffiths of two charges of sexual assault, accepting the young woman’s assessment that there was “no doubt” that had she not moved away from him that first time he touched her arm, he would have gone on to touch her breast. “The complainant’s evidence was very clear, logical and without embellishment,” the magistrate told the defendant. “We can think of no motivation for you to touch the victim other than sexual. Had she not taken evasive action the assault was likely to have been even more serious.”
Jamie faces possible imprisonment for up to ten years, and might be placed on the sex offense registry. He steadfastly maintains his innocence.
He told the magistrate that he had been studying for standardized tests, and was lonely and anxious. Hewas do desperate that he googled “how to make a friend”—that’s pretty desperate—and was advised to break the ice with a joke. He decided to give it a try with the young woman. “I went to touch her arm to start a conversation and she just walked off,” he said. “I just wanted to speak to someone,” but “the words just didn’t come out.”
Then he tried again. The smirk was only a friendly smile that the girl misinterpreted, Jamie says.
My assessment is that a society where this can happen is in serious trouble.
Let’s stipulate that Jamie Griffiths behavior was inept, misguided and creepy. Nevertheless, it could not fairly, even by the most unsympathetic interpretation, be called a criminal act. If someone reaches out and touches me on the arm when I am minding my own business and walking on the sidewalk in public, the stranger better say something appropriate quick (as one did a couple of months ago, informing me that I had dropped my wallet) or I will say, “What? Why did you touch me? Stay away from me!” Any woman as old as 17 should be able to do the same. Reporting such a touch to police is a waste of police time and an irresponsible over-reaction. The second encounter, the alleged hand on the waist, requires a direct rebuke. Still, absent anything else more serious than an ambiguous smile, there is no crime. There is certainly no justification to seek to punish the young man by bringing the power of the state down upon him. Reporting him to the school administrators should be the absolute maximum response, and even that shows serious life competence deficits.
As I’ve stated here many times, I was raised in Boston, and learned that you never touch anyone, anywhere, with anything, without permission. If you absolutely have to, and a vocal alert isn’t sufficient, you lightly tap a person on the shoulder. However, many, I would venture most, people are not raised this way, and a competent, compassionate member of society must always allow for different habits and practices.
We do not automatically assume the worst of people. We presume good will, rather than bad. We do not seek to turn every misunderstanding into a fight, or seek to hurt those who may have made an honest mistake. We treat people, including strangers, this way because we know that mutual care and understanding based on how we would want to be treated—the Golden Rules–create an essential bond of common sense and tolerance that make a civil society possible.
Post Script: I was watching an episode of “Mr. Mercedes” last night before I read about poor Jamie. In what was supposed to be a funny exchange, a young woman reacted indignantly to a casual comment by her male employer—hardly a harassing one, but politically incorrect from the #MeToo perspective—by sharply reprimanding him, staing that he wasn’t even supposed to notice that she was female, and any hint that he did was treading on thin ice.
I decided that the scene wasn’t so funny.