Sunday, June 27, 2021

Consent and the Primacy of the Individual Will

This morning, completely by chance, I read two NY Times articles in succession. The first is titled "Is this Railroad for the Rich?" and discusses the very strict zoning of many towns along the Long Island Railroad. It is illegal to build multi-family housing near any of the LIRR stations in Nassau County. In one town, Bellerose, it is illegal to build any new housing at all, since that "would be detrimental to the integrity of the village and to the health, safety and welfare of its residents." Any professional planner would say that around commuter rail stations is the perfect place for new apartments or condominiums, but the people of Nassau County don't want it and they have the power to stop it.

From there I clicked to an interesting article by Parul Sehgal titled "Consent." Consent, preferably verbal and explicit, was established a generation ago as the essential precursor to any sort of sex. But a raft of books has appeared over the past few years asking hard questions about this notion, which seems to be wholly inadequate to protecting people (and especially girls and young women) from harm. Some feminists have argued that sex can still be rape even when explicitly consented to, for example when men lie about being married. We have also been treated to scenes in the movies and on television in which creepy abusers bully girls into saying "yes" out loud, then using this as a cover for doing whatever they want.

It’s upon this shifting terrain that these new works are set. “I May Destroy You” is based on Coel’s experience of sexual assault, around which orbit other stories of ambiguous sexual encounters — “thefts of consent,” she calls them. . . . Annabel Lyon’s prizewinning novel “Consent” follows, in part, a woman disturbed to learn that her intellectually disabled sister wants to marry — is she capable of consent? In Shatara Michelle Ford’s film “Test Pattern,” the question of consent hinges not just on a woman’s assault by a stranger but on the putatively protective behavior of her partner afterward. The acclaimed French writer Annie Ernaux took 60 years to piece together her latest memoir, “A Girl’s Story,” about the trauma of her first sexual experience, “because it was so complex.” “Had it been a rape, I might have been able to talk about it earlier, but I never thought about it that way,” she has said. “I gave in, so to speak, out of ignorance. I don’t even remember saying, ‘No.’”

Even more than these explorations of ambiguity, what struck me is that some thinkers are extending the notion of consent well beyond relationships between two people. If the two people involved have a major disparity of power – teacher and student, boss and employee – does consent mean anything? Should we, maybe, try to restructure our whole society in an anarchist direction, to minimize the extent to which people ever do things to which they would not wholeheartedly consent?

And then this:

What if it were acknowledged not just as a private transaction between individuals, but, as Milena Popova suggests in her study of the term, “Sexual Consent,” as something ever-present in our enmeshment with the world? Where is our consent in the water we drink or the air we breathe?

Setting aside the narrow if vital question of sex, I want to ask this: to what extent should we think about life as things to which we do or do not consent? When can things be forced on us without our consent? How much do we have to know, and how much control of a situation do we have to have, before we can meaningfully consent to anything? In what sort of mental states can we meaningfully consent, and might we rather often be so confused or bedazzled that the concept does not apply? When would the cost of saying no, for example to our employers, be so high that our choice is taken away from us?

We are watching this unfold across the world about Covid-19 vaccinations, with hundreds even of hospital employees refusing the shot and raising hell at the prospect of their bodily integrity being violated without their consent. And yes there are people who explicitly equate forced vaccination with rape.

In the words of the Hagakure, "this understanding extends to all things." The people of Nassau County do not consent to the building of apartment buildings near their homes, and if that means somebody else suffers, too bad; they believe absolutely that their homes should not be changed without their consent. Millions of people in the US and Europe feel this way about immigration: they have not consented to seeing their communities transformed by strangers, and they hate that this happened without anyone asking their opinion. As Matt Yglesias once put it, "change feels coercive."

How big a role can we grant to the pursuit of this kind of individual integrity, the refusal to do or endure anything we have not consented to? Some anarchists extend it very far indeed. I think that is simply unworkable, and that some decisions have to be made politically and enforced on everyone. But I think you can go a long way toward understanding modern politics by hearing people say, "I did not consent to this," and I think it would do us all good to reflect on what our own politics might entail forcing on others, and how we would feel if the same were done to us.


David said...

I would say modern liberalism and lefitism are also very much based on "I do not consent to this." Many folks feel they do not consent to a society with so many guns, or aggressive policing, or overstrict voting rules, or so much wealth going to the highest ranks. It is not only right wingers who feel put upon. This way of feeling is society-wide; it is not specifically a reaction to liberal governance.

I'm also skeptical that restructuring our society in an anarchist direction would "minimize the extent to which people ever do things to which they would not wholeheartedly consent." To believe this one would have to accept the basic anarchist/Marxist premise that all forms of consciousness are simply predicates of social structure, and thus coercion among people is simply a secondary reflection of the primary coercion in society at large. I don't think this is true.

G. Verloren said...

What is democracy, if not rule by (majority) consent?

Obviously, not everything will be consented to by everyone. But the thing people fail to recognize is that rights and freedoms extend only until they unduly infringe upon someone else's rights and freedoms. A balance must be struck.

You don't consent to wearing a seatbelt? Well, if you're on private roads, you don't have to! But if you're using public roads, paid for with public money, used by the public, you must wear a seatbelt, because if you don't you are endangering others. If you don't consent to that condition, you don't get to use the road.

You don't consent to being tested and licensed to drive a car? Well, again - if you're on private property, you don't need one, but the moment you want to drive on public roads, you either have to consent to licensing or not receive permission.

You don't want to vaccinate your children? Fine, then they don't get to attend public school - find them a private school to attend, or homeschool them yourself.

You don't want to vaccinate yourself? Fine, then you don't get to be out in public - you can stay unvaccinated on private property, but public spaces will deny you.

You don't want to pay your taxes? Fine, then you don't get any public services - you can hire a private police force, a private fire department, go to a private hospital when you have a medical emergency, and travel there on private roads (or perhaps in a private helicopter).

You don't want to be a part of society? Fine, then go move to the deep woods of Alaska or Siberia and live in isolation away from other humans, where the government is unlikely to notice or care what you do so long as it isn't too crazy.

Consent is vital in all things, but so is understanding what you are consenting to, and understanding what the consequences of your choice are.

G. Verloren said...

Now, as for how you best balance things and where you draw the line, that's an ongoing question for which there is no simple answer. However, in general, we should adopt a utilitarian and humanist outlook - promote the greatest good, while allowing the greatest freedoms.

Workplace power imbalances, for example, are a balance problem. The disparity in power, and the level of control that the more powerful party has over the other, is often excessive. Disparity may sometimes be necessary, but much of the disparity we see is very much not necessary, but is the product of greed and other malign factors.

For example, the wage gap between men and women is clearly indefensible. There is no valid excuse for such a practice, it's just greed and misogyny running rampant.

In contrast, the basic idea of authority and rank within a company - of some members of a given company having greater degrees of power over others - is eminently sensible and necessary (up to a certain point). For example, it would be wholly unworkable if literally any member of a company could unilaterally fire any other member - hence, the power to fire someone needs to be restricted in some fashion.

That said, things can easily be taken too far - companies paying CEOs massive bonuses while simultaneously laying off lower ranking workers is a classic example of what is clearly an abuse of power imbalances, not a necessary reality.

Power imbalances aren't the issue - abuse of power imbalances it the issue.

Similarly, things happening regardless of someone else's consent isn't the problem - it's which things happen, and why.

You don't want to have to be vaccinated in order to go out in public? Tough - you don't get to imperil the safety of the public. Your refusal is unreasonable.

In contrast, you don't want to have sex with someone who lied about being married? Well, it maybe shouldn't be a crime as severe as rape, but it definitely should have some sort of consequences! Because your refusal is WHOLLY reasonable, and the other person's actions are abominable and indefensible.