From reining in Wall Street to preventing the next oil spill and tackling global climate change, we often hold back from taking important public stands because we’re caught in a trap I call “the perfect standard.” Before letting ourselves take action on an issue, we wait to be certain that it’s the world’s most important issue, that we understand it perfectly, and that we’ll be able to express our perspectives with perfect eloquence. We also decide that engagement requires being of perfect moral character without the slightest inconsistencies or flaws.
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Gandhi’s grandson, Arun Gandhi, tells the story of how his grandfather’s family mortgaged everything they had–their land, their jewelry, everything of value–to send Gandhi to law school. Gandhi graduated and passed the bar, but was so shy that when he stood up in court all he could do was stammer. He couldn’t get a sentence out in defense of his clients. As a result, he lost every one of his cases. He was a total failure as a lawyer. His family didn’t know what do to. Finally, they sent him off to South Africa, where he literally and metaphorically found his voice by challenging the country’s racial segregation.
I love viewing Gandhi not as the master strategist of social change that he later became, but as someone who at first was literally tongue-tied–shyer and more intimidated than almost anyone we can imagine. His story is a caution against the impulse to try and achieve perfection before we begin the journey of social change.
“I think it does us all a disservice,” says Atlanta activist Sonya Vetra Tinsley, “when people who work for social change are presented as saints–so much more noble than the rest of us. We get a false sense that from the moment they were born they were called to act, they never had doubts, were bathed in a circle of light. But I’m much more inspired learning how people succeeded despite their failings and uncertainties. It’s a much less intimidating image. It makes me feel like I have a shot at changing things too.”
Maureen Dowd’s recent column takes on the David Letterman controversy and the power dynamics that shape romances between superiors and subordinates, particularly on the job. She stakes claim to a middle ground between those eviscerating the long-time late night comic and those who find nothing much objectionable about his behavior. To me, Dowd’s columns are often hit or miss, but this one does hit on some interesting and pertinent points. Still, what I find most off-putting is her reliance on a different school of feminist critique that is, in my humble opinion, several decades out of date. Our own generational mindset forms our opinions and may still be relevant to those of our age range, but staying resolutely within these parameters does not often allow one to remain current or even pertinent.
In an ideal world, bosses would refrain from sleeping with subordinates, so as not to cause jealousy and tension in the office. But we’re not in an ideal world. Otherwise, we’d already have health care for everyone and Glenn Beck wouldn’t have any influence over the White House.
Some have been quick to criticize Letterman for his dalliances. I am not among them. In truth, I myself have broken the unwritten rule of office politics and engaged in a relationship with a co-worker. It should be noted that I was not in an subordinate position either time and once even dated a “superior”, though the lines separating chain of command at that workplace were rather fluid. It has been my experience that while such behavior might not necessarily be problematic in and of itself, in stable work environments, it need not be a major issue. In dysfunctional work environments, however, it is courting disaster.
The most contentious assertion to be lifted out of Dowd’s entire column is this one.
A few years ago, I wrote that 40 years of feminism had done nothing to alter the fact that older men often see young women in staff support as sirens. For some men, it’s the very inequality of the relationship that’s alluring, the way these women revolve around them and make life easier, the way they treat Himself like the sunrise and sunset of their universe.
Temptation lies inside of each of our hearts and whether we merely lust in them or actively engage is a decision purely ours. What I object to in Dowd’s line of logic is what it implies. As she posits it, young women have no defenses and no say against the sinister designs of an older man in a position of authority. This is a tad insulting to women, because it implies that men pull the strings and that a woman’s individual intentions are somehow predestined to be superseded and overruled by the men in charge. Women certainly have every right and capability to object and decline an offer of sexual intimacy if it is made. They are not powerless to guard off the insatiable carnal lust of any man, nor somehow obligated to fall into bed with him, whether or not he is their boss. There is often something attractive about authority figures for all of us, regardless of gender, and this is when power dynamics enter the picture and influence our decision-making process.
Part of the argument advanced by Dowd is rooted in a paternalistic belief that the young are too immature and too childish to know how to make correct decisions for themselves. While I know that I made foolish choices in my past out of a combination of youth and inexperience, I do recognize now that age has brought things into focus that were once blurry and uncertain. It would seem that the matter we are discussing now is not consent, rather it is judgment. Even so, I never saw instances where some magnetic, voodoo force compelled my female friends to engage in sexual relationships with their professors or bosses. If I was even aware of such things, what I saw was highly consensual and if immaturity was present, it was frequently present within both parties, age notwithstanding. Still, the ancient motif of the vampire older man with sinister intentions preying on the innocent, virginal young girl/woman still persists to the current day and it’s a caricature as deeply insulting to men as it is as women.
But it’s absurd to compare a jester (unmarried at the time) to Bill Clinton and other philandering pols. Officeholders run as devoted family men upholding old-fashioned values. They have ambitious public agendas and loyal acolytes whose futures depend on whether these leaders succumb to reckless dalliances.
As Craig Ferguson, whose show is produced by Letterman, joked: “If we are now holding late-night talk-show hosts to the same moral accountability as we hold politicians or clergymen, I’m out.”
This arises from a hypocrisy we all carry. Though we rarely hold ourselves to a standard of perfection, because we recognize all too well how exhausting and impossible it is, we certainly hold others to this same unfeasible expectation. This isn’t just illogical, it’s also completely nonsensical. In my real life as well as my online existence, I have seen this sort of matter destroy whole communities or severely compromise unity. In a Feminist internet community I regularly frequent, a mini-drama has recently broken out over matters of semantics. A member has taken much time, energy, and effort to file a protest, accusing the moderators of not adequately monitoring and refuting numerous instances of offensive, and anti-feminist language. While I can tell that the protest is motivated out of good intentions, I also am aware that within any movement which feels a compulsion to bring to light to a multitude of enemies lurking insidiously in the in the shadows, sometimes aiming to find every instance of genuine injustice can be taken a bit too far.
This is itself a kind of Sisyphean struggle for perfection, a kind of wack-a-mole activism that will only create frustration, hair-splitting, and nitpicking in the end. One could conceivably devote full-time hours specifically to highlight inflammatory, objectionable instances of societal evils—the sort found in every corner of this big, broad world and even broader internet, but still be no farther towards resolution. There is no sin in admitting that we ourselves are imperfect people and that we ourselves are limited in our scope of influence. If identifying a problem were sufficient in and of itself, we would have put behind many stubborn problems long before today. Admitting our limitations does not mean that we are impotent or incapable, but it does insist that we recognize that we have the capacity to accomplish a few things very well before it comes our time to pass away to the next life. Life is short and I myself would rather devise a way to do a few things exceptionally well than spread myself so thinly that I unintentionally dilute my efforts to making improvements and pushing badly needed reforms.