Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Beyond consent

Through gritted teeth, and firmly holding my nose, I would like to express some limited sympathy for Matthew Johns, who has been hung out to dry by Channel Nine (and just about everyone) after a years-old group-sex scandal was so thoroughly aired on national television this week.

His pathetic, but I suspect sincere, clinging to the mantra “but she consented”, is the point here. Well yes, maybe she did. If one thinks about the situation, this doesn't really cut it, but our society has spent a few decades pretending that consent (perhaps glossed to mean “informed consent”) provides a sufficient handle on the morality of sexual encounters. (Even some of Johns' critics, as quoted on the TV, are still trying to cut their disgust to fit the Procrustean bed of “consent”.) That pretence has helped blight this decade for the unfortunate girl in the story (one prays, not her whole life); but it has also betrayed Johns and people like him, by making it easier for them to lose moral perspective, and by indulging their boorishness.

Earlier generations of thought approached this problem via honour, an approach rich in double standards, and modern commentators have been quick and strident in their criticism. Accepting all of that criticism, one has to say that older approaches are realistic at one point --- the plain fact that “consent”, meaning what-the-woman-wants-or-says-at-the-time, is not necessarily the main question, and by no means the only question --- on which our society has been systematically stupid. Without mercy, we have pilloried our ancestors for the deficiencies in their thinking ... and yet people in future societies looking back on ours, or people in different societies looking across at us, will probably ask how we could be so blind. The cheap answer will be that we handed over our thinking in this matter to people without daughters, and to people who furthermore did not care about the moral lives of their sons. Doubtless there's more to it than that, but will anyone have enough patience with us to give a more merciful answer?

1 comment:

Earwicker said...

This is a good post.

It is easy to forget that there are many people whose behaviour and moral instincts are much better than their capacity for moral reasoning.