Thursday, September 27, 2018

Orlando Patterson on the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill Confrontation

Back in 1991, Orlando Patterson wrote an interesting essay for the Times about the televised confrontation between Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill. Access may be limited to subscribers, but anyway here are some excerpts:
We must face certain stark sociological realities: in our increasingly female, work-centered world, most of our relationships, including intimate ones, are initiated in the workplace; gender relations, especially new ones, are complex and invariably ambiguous; in our heterogeneous society, the perception of what constitutes proper and effective male-female relations varies across gender, class, ethnicity and region; and in keeping with our egalitarian ideals, we take pride in the fact that the WASP boss may legitimately desire or want to marry his or her Puerto Rican aide or chauffeur.

One revealing feature of these hearings is the startling realization that Judge Clarence Thomas might well have said what Prof. Anita Hill alleges and yet be the extraordinarily sensitive man his persuasive female defenders claimed. American feminists have no way of explaining this. They have correctly demanded a rigorously enforced protocol of gender relations in the workplace. But they have also demanded that same intimate bonding that men of power traditionally share, the exclusion from which has kept them below the glass ceiling. There is a serious lacuna in the discourse, for we have failed to ask one fundamental question: how is nonerotic intimacy between men and women possible?

Clarence Thomas emerged in the hearings as one of those rare men who, with one or two exceptions, has achieved both: in general, he rigorously enforced the formal rules of gender relations, and he had an admirable set of intimate, nonerotic relations with his female associates.

And yet, tragically, there is his alleged failing with Professor Hill. How is this possible? While middle-class neo-Puritans ponder this question, the mass of the white working class and nearly all African Americans except their intellectually exhausted leaders have already come up with the answer. He may well have said what he is alleged to have said, but he did so as a man not unreasonably attracted to an aloof woman who is esthetically and socially very similar to himself, who had made no secret of her own deep admiration for him.

With his mainstream cultural guard down, Judge Thomas on several misjudged occasions may have done something completely out of the cultural frame of his white, upper-middle-class work world, but immediately recognizable to Professor Hill and most women of Southern working-class backgrounds, white or black, especially the latter.

Now to most American feminists, and to politicians manipulating the nation's lingering Puritan ideals, an obscenity is always an obscenity, an absolute offense against God and the moral order; to everyone else, including all professional social linguists and qualitative sociologists, an obscene expression, whether in Chaucerian Britain or the American South, has to be understood in context. I am convinced that Professor Hill perfectly understood the psycho-cultural context in which Judge Thomas allegedly regaled her with his Rabelaisian humor (possibly as a way of affirming their common origins), which is precisely why she never filed a complaint against him.
To summarize, Thomas was usually very correct with female colleagues, but with Hill he was sometimes much cruder, because he wanted to bond as two black people from the South operating in a white world, and because he was hot for her. Unrequited desire is always ugly. But like Patterson I do not think that banning all non-professional behavior from the workplace is any kind of workable solution.

Besides the questions about men and women at work, which my readers know I have long pondered, Patterson also considered Thomas and Hill through a lens of racial change. He was fascinated that American politics for a brief while fixated on two successful, professional black people, and that people's reactions to them were much more about gender than about race:
One great good to come out of the hearings was the revelation to the average white American that, superstar athletes, news anchors and politicians aside, not all African Americans are underclass cocaine junkies and criminals, which is an understandable delusion in any white person whose only knowledge of African Americans comes from the press and television.

Above all, they saw in Judge Thomas and Professor Hill two very complex, highly intelligent persons who knew how to get and use power in the mainstream society, and were role models for black and white people alike.

However, perhaps the most remarkable feature of the hearings is the response of the public. Here again, liberal expectations were at odds with realities. It was thought that racism would be reinforced by these hearings -- which is one simple-minded reason given for criticizing them -- but in fact what has emerged is not only the indifference of the white public to the racial aspect of the proceedings but the degree to which white men and women have identified their own interests and deepest anxieties with the two African American antagonists. Indeed, the only aspect of these hearings likely to have increased racism was the journalists' shrill and self-fulfilling insistence that the nation is exploding with racism. This is one of those cases where the messengers deserved to be shot.


G. Verloren said...

"But like Patterson I do not think that banning all non-professional behavior from the workplace is any kind of workable solution."

Why not? You're not at work to bond with people - you're at work to do your job.

What's the issue? Surely if you want to bond with your coworkers, you can do so off the clock? Arrange to meet them for coffee, lunch, dinner, a movie, et cetera. You're free to try your luck somewhere else, on your own time.

We already do exactly this is some fields. It's one thing for a doctor to flirt with a nurse or even a patient if they meet up in a hospital cafeteria for lunch - it's another thing entirely for it to happen while people are on duty. If we can maintain basic professionalism with regards to intimacy and bonding there, why not elsewhere?

If you want to bond with a coworker, ask them if they'd be willing to spend some time with you after work, or on lunch, or on a day off, and THEN try your hand at building a relationship and getting to know each other. But while you're at work, just stay professional.

pootrsox said...

"If you want to bond with a coworker, ask them if they'd be willing to spend some time with you after work, or on lunch, or on a day off, and THEN try your hand at building a relationship and getting to know each other. But while you're at work, just stay professional"


Keep the work environment non-sexual; bond intellectually, as appropriate, but keep the flirtation and the implied romantic/lustful interest outside the bounds of the job.

I speak as someone who *married* a teaching colleague... I flirted in the teachers' cafe; I kept all other interactions professional. He asked me out, and *then* we developed a relationship. We did not exchange on-the-job romantic interactions until we were already a couple.

And the same thing applies to a number of my colleagues who also met and ultimately married their opposite numbers on the faculty.

Of course, divorcing a fellow faculty member is a lot more awkward, especially if the two of you continue to teach in the same school for another 5 years!

John said...

Both of you make it sound like "acting professional" is some obvious way of being, but I have never been able to figure it out. What kinds of jokes are acceptable? How much can you reveal about your out of work life? Can you talk about your marriage? Your children? God? Art?

And what can you say about work? Can you admit to being confused by what you are supposed to do? To finding some things very difficult? To having doubts about whether your job is worthwhile? Or does professionalism mean always displaying some combination of ambitious striving and resigned stoicism?

Inviting someone to spend time with you after work feels to me like a momentous act, far more dangerous and fraught with rejection peril than flirting in the office.

I always err on the side of caution in all these things, and as a result I find it all but impossible to make friends at work. Everything has to be negotiated along a grindingly slow passage from commenting on the weather to something about television to complaining about clients and so on, a course that takes a decade to bear any real fruit, at which point the person you have so painstakingly gotten to know retires or leaves for another company and you never see them again.

To me the whole "always be professional at work" thing seems to assume that we all have tons of other friends and lots of other places we hang out and that single people are always meeting lots of potential dates in other places and so on. But these things are not true; loneliness is the bane of modern society. This is especially so for people over 60, but my older children all complain about the difficulty of meeting potential dates. If we can't make friends at work, where can we make friends? And how, within the narrow straits of "professionalism," is it possible to make friends?

Are we really supposed to be satisfied with the sort of polite acquaintances we can form in a professional context?

I experience the demands of "professionalism" as a fortress that separates me from others and that must be somehow breached to achieve real human communication. I regard the shortage of real human interaction as the single worst thing in my life.

I think loneliness is the single biggest problem of modernity.

So I am always extremely skeptical of any plan for our society that involves us sharing even less of ourselves with others.

Anonymous said...

I think John's plea is eloquent and important.

According to one school of thought, backed up by a famous (and, I'm sure, much-critiqued) study done at Hamilton College, the most important factor in students feeling they're getting something out of college is a sense of personal connection, including (and perhaps especially) with at least some of their professors.

The problem is that, when people start making, or trying to make, personal connections, that will inevitably bring with it clumsiness and misinterpretation and the awkwardness or pain of incompatibility, as well as the more actively bad aspects of what humans want out of each other.

So, professionalism is a "safe" route--and certainly useful, for all sorts of reasons.

As I interpret Patterson--and I know very little about the case and haven't read the rest of Patterson's essay--he's saying Thomas was trying to bond with Hill by "being southern black" with her. It's an obvious, basic strategy of establishing a connection, to find that ostensible common thing and lean on it. And one of the risks was that Hill wouldn't like it (perhaps, among other possibilities, because she didn't like the aspect of excluding the others in the room). Thomas, if Patterson is right and I'm interpreting him right, made the unfortunate response of doubling down on his opening--perhaps with a hostile aspect of "oh, you think you're not black?"

And so on.

Human relations are difficult and risky. And they can easily and quickly go to very, very bad places.

G. Verloren said...



What you're describing is akin to a doctor's bedside manner. Some jobs require the person performing them to sengage with people in a personal way (or sometimes just in a way that seems personal, but isn't actually). That doesn't diminish the need for professionalism - it amplifies it.

When a police officer interacts with a member of the general public while in uniform, there's a lot that they need to be doing in how they present themselves. They need to balance appearing to be a powerful authority figure with also appearing to be approachable, and reasonable, and patient, and fair. They need to be able to switch between different demeanors as the situation requires - and often in the middle of high stress situations and crises.

Being "professional" in such circumstances is extremely difficult, to be fair. But it's also vitally important. You don't want police officers who try to take charge in a chaotic situation by going overboard and becoming threatening or abusive.

You also don't really want them trying to make themselves approachable by attempting to adopt behaviors, mannerisms, or word choices that are outside the norm. If a sun-tanned beachgoer with a surfboard gets pulled over for speeding and the police officer sees they're really nervous and tries to put them at ease by jokingly adopting stereotypical surfing lingo during the issuing of the ticket, that's wildly unprofessional and will probably backfire in a massive way. You should just issue the ticket in the normal, prescribed way - neutrally and professionally.

G. Verloren said...


That said, yes - there will sometimes be contexts where going against the standard procedure is appropriate and necessary. A police officer interacting with a scared child, for example, quite obviously should modulate their behavior, language, et cetera, to accomodate the needs of the child. They drop their usual demeanor of a powerful authority figure and humanize themselves a bit to put the child. But they need to do so with a massive degree of caution and self awareness. They need to forewarn themselves that what they think might calm a scared child may not work universally for all children, and they need to be careful not to go overboard and take things too far even if their chosen approach does initially seem to work.

So yeah, context is wildly important, and caution is equally vital. For example, a police officer shouldn't normally ask you about your family or tell you about their own. But when speaking to a scared or crying child it could very well be the right call to take a moment to humanize yourself to them by asking them a question or two about their family, and maybe sharing something small about your own.

And of course, these sorts of interactions are things that police officers are ideally supposed to be trained in handling. There is supposed to be a professional set of procedures to follow, based on study and established good practices.

That officer talking to that crying child should proabably be roughly following an established script or outline or playbook, designed to be broadly effective in a variety of cases. Something like... they start by saying hello and telling the child their name; then they ask if the child would be willing to answer some questions; then they ask the child's name, if it hasn't been volunteered; they repeat the child's name back to them, to demonstrate they were paying attention and confirm they got it right; they ask about their wellbeing; they ask after their parents and family members; et cetera. The idea is to shape the conversation in a way that not only produces helpful information, but also puts the child at ease and humanizes the officer in their eyes.

Naturally, sometimes you'll go off script. Maybe the crying child is upset because their dog is missing. It might be a good idea to say something like, "Oh! That's terrible! I have a dog at home too! I love him very much! I'd be upset, too, if he was missing. You must be very worried about your dog. Don't worry, I'll help you find them." And then you ask them what their dog looks like, when they last saw the dog, et cetera, and get on with solving the problem.

But that said, having appropriate training and a script of some sort to begin with is vitally important, because the job requires that you be able to modulate your behavior to sometimes extreme degrees, often in high stress situations, and yet always be careful not to take things too far. We can't expect people to be model police officers if we don't help them learn all the difficult things necessary for that to be possible.