Catcalling and the Criminalization of Social Ineptitude

By now, most everyone has heard of the video of a model being catcalled as she walked down the streets of New York. Under the guise of raising awareness about this casual form of alleged misogyny, it has served mainly to the raise the blood pressure of feminists who are always slathering for new wrongs to be righted.

In a sane world, catcalling would merely be seen as rude behavior, and the only reaction it would provoke would be a roll of the eyes as the target proceeded on her way, her mood temporarily dampened. After all, the rude always have and always will exist, and the polite will always go on bearing their crosses when necessary. But Americans are no longer allowed to be sane, lest sanity leave even the smallest of injustices unavenged. Unfortunately, recognizing a person as rude is no longer enough. In their never-ending quest to “help” women who are insufficiently self-centered, feminist social justice warriors have risen up to overreact by transforming “Some jerk was rude to me!” into “Somebody transgressed against my very personhood by violating my right to only interact with other people on my own terms.”

Consider, for example, Rachel Zarell’s glowing praise of #DudesGreetingDudes over on Buzzfeed. The hashtag was created by Elon James White, and is meant to satirize the notion that catcalling is (in Zarell’s words) merely a “harmless greeting” or just “saying hi” by targeting catcalls at men instead of women. My particular favorite is “You see a dude looking all hard & sh*t. Roll up on him like “Aye yo, smile, son. Damn.” BRING SUNSHINE TO HIS DAY.”

Now, I have not actually heard anybody claim that catcalling is just a greeting. Zarell links to another piece about SNL’s Michael Che as an example, but Che says nothing of the kind within that piece, so I’m inclined to believe that this is a straw man. However, if anybody does reduce catcalling to a simple greeting, then he is, of course, silly. At the very least, it combines a greeting with a signal of sexual interest; and one might argue that it signals some measure of sexual intent as well. This is precisely why White’s satire is amusing—because the casual and enthusiastic homosexuality expressed in #DudesGreetingDudes remains humorously incongruous in normal society despite the best efforts of the rainbow lobby.

The overreaction, however, is not found in the satire itself, but in White’s other comments quoted in the piece:

“A woman was just killed for not accepting a man’s advances, but we’re going to pretend that our right to engage women unsolicited outweighs their right to feel safe? No.”

“The right to approach women at any point in time no matter where they are is seen as a right by some men,”

“Dudes who were arguing for the right to greet women against their will were very annoyed with me.”

Lines like these should set off the warning sirens of anyone who loves personal liberty. Women have a right to feel a particular way that outweighs the rights of others to express interest to them in public? One should never greet a woman against her (unexpressed) will? The problem is in the ridiculous subjectivity of these “rights” with which White attempts to endow women. Essential to the notion of the rule of law (a notion we in America are quickly abandoning) is that the law to which all citizens are equally held is something that can (in principle, at least) be known by all citizens before they act against it. But no woman can accurately predict in advance exactly how she’s going to feel about any and every man approaching her about some kind of sexual relationship. Neither is a typical woman’s unexpressed “will” regarding such approaches required to be a matter of public record. Even attempting to enforce something this subjective is inherently tyrannical. It shifts authority away from the rule of law, and instead places it in whichever individuals or groups happen to hold some measure of social influence at any given moment.

Like most people, I do not deny that catcalling is rude. Many well-intentioned moderates have ended up supporting the cause of the social justice warriors on the catcalling issue specifically because they see a false dichotomy between rudeness and hypersensitivity. They naturally do not want to support rudeness, and though hypersensitivity holds no appeal to them, they see it as a more-or-less harmless kind of peevishness. The reality, however, is that such peevishness is not harmless at all—not when it leads people to claim liberty-destroying rights that grant some citizens arbitrary power over others.

Consider, for example, a recent incident at the University of Waterloo in Canada. Campus police were involved in the hunt for a young Asian student who tried to hold hands with a couple of women uninvited whilst telling them they were attractive. It also seems that he stood in their path when they walked away from him. The director of the campus police is unsure of whether this student will face any further disciplinary action, but he has determined that the student was harmless and was simply socially awkward.

I’m glad that the campus police seem to have deliberated thoughtfully on the matter, but two troubling facts remain: First, a man was arrested simply for being socially awkward around women because it creeped them out. Second, there seem to be quite a few who think that what he did should actually be considered criminal. The first, I think, is tolerable. The police had a responsibility to investigate, it got sorted out in the end, and though it was a near-miss for the accused student, no one was harmed. One would hope that he at least learned a valuable lesson about personal space—only the highly attractive get to violate it uninvited. However, the second fact, the impulse to punish the student, is much more dangerous. I keep hearing that social awkwardness is no excuse for what he did—but an excuse implies that there exists something that needs to be excused. That is fair enough insofar as we mean that the man’s rudeness is not excused by his being socially inept. But if that’s all that is meant, then why are the police involved at all? If we are speaking from a legal perspective, however, exactly what harm has actually transpired in this scenario? What has the student caused that needs to be punished rather than tolerated by the police and courts?

Too many people, like Elon James White, try to create such a basis by inventing these rights that are as subjective as they are dubious. Perhaps that was not his intention, but whenever we speak of rights in such a manner, we speak of something that demands recognition and protection by the law. The more people who assert that anyone has a right not to be made to feel certain ways by others—who insist that the momentary fear experienced by the young women amounts to actual harm that requires retribution—the more this kind of scenario will be met without thoughtful deliberation, and the more actual harm will result when awkward young men are actually punished for their awkwardness.



About Matt

Software engineer by trade; lay theologian by nature; Lutheran by grace.
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