This morning I have been mostly overthinking an XKCD cartoon. Here it is.
The cartoon has raised some criticisms on feminist forums. The problem that people have identified with it is that it suggests that the poor guy is stuck in this impossible situation, and not meeting the love of his life, because women are so confusing. Darn those women, if only they could make their minds up about whether they wanted strangers to talk to them or not.
I think this is a little unfair on the cartoon – I see it as raising a genuine problem, rather than necessarily perpetuating it. There are various ways that you can read a rather sparse little comic strip like this, but we do not have to draw the moral that the man is a victim of those confusing women. Rather, we can say that we live in a culture where there genuinely is no right answer about how he should behave (although there certainly are plenty of wrong ones). This is not the fault of the woman in question, or of women in general, but rather the fault of background conditions under which women, as sexual and human beings, might welcome human contact for various reasons, but under which they are also prone to feel intimidated or objectified by a random approach from a man, no matter how well intentioned. Whether an advance is welcome or unwelcome is so dependent on the particular situation that the man is not always going to be able to read it successfully, and the woman herself may well feel conflicted. This is made all the worse by the fact that men are socially expected to make the advances, but (for the same reasons) men often make advances that are unwelcome, or even commit acts of sexual violence and intimidation. Like it or not, scenarios like this one are not just exchanges between two individuals, they are conditioned by the background norms of behaviour. This can lead to impossible choices.
But it is important to remember that there are much more significant impossible choices than this one: should I heat my home or feed my family? Should I choose a career or children? Should I feel trapped in my home or risk sexual assault? Should I suffer violence and oppression, or fight it with violence and oppression? Should I fight the oppressors, or care for those who are dependent on me because they are oppressed? All over the world, people are forced into situations where there is no right answer to these questions, only wrong ones. There are other situations where we face less troubling questions that have no right answers: ‘do I buy a second car or a second home?’ might be one example, or ‘shall I order the moules mariniere or the pan-fried sea bass?’ These are nice choices to have, even if there is no system for determining the answer, and importantly, there are only right answers, rather than (as in the previous examples) only wrong ones.
Moral philosophers often like to think that there is a formula for determining the right thing to do. If you are faced with a decision like this, you apply whatever your well-tested formula happens to be, do what it says, and then you have done no wrong. This does not reflect our experiences in situations like this. I do not believe that any theory is always going to present us with an unproblematic ‘right’ course of action. Sometimes there just isn’t one.
In the cases where there are only wrong choices, this often (but not always) stems from political injustices. Heating one’s home or feeding one’s family is only a meaningful question in situations of poverty. When people are faced with that choice in wealthy countries like the UK, this could have been prevented. The choice between a career and children is most often a genuinely troubling one for women.
If we believe that genuine moral dilemmas of the kind that I have been talking about are troubling and conflicted cases, this might present us with a case for saying that the prevention of them is a central concern of politics. Of course, there will always be some unavoidable situations with no right answers, and learning to deal with these is an aspect of moral maturity, but these situations should not be inflicted on people in gratuitous and radically unequal ways. Many political theories emphasising choice seem to overlook the fact that market-based accounts of freedom tend to create these situations. ‘Choice’ becomes a watchword of the advocates of freedom: the luxury of choosing between the mussels and the fish may be a lovely thing, but in what sense is the choice between starving or freezing either a good or a reflection of freedom?
Political institutions concerned with liberty ought to be in the business not just of maximising the choices that people can make, but in making these choices meaningful ones that do not place people in situations of unnecessary irresolvable conflict.
Should the guy speak to the woman on the train? I have no more idea than he does, and because of that, he ought to do what he can to bring about a society in which women are equal and not subject to objectification and intimidation. If he acknowledges that, then I think we are right to feel sorry for him.