Monday, January 18, 2010

Meandering Manifesto, Part 3: The Prisoner

Continuing from Meandering Manifesto, Part 2: Moral Turpitude...

Grace and I were watching "Strong Poison", one of our old favorites. It's a marvelous BBC dramatization of the Dorothy Sayers mystery. At the outset of the story Harriet Vane stands accused of murdering her former lover. As I watched the first trial scene my gears started to turn.

In his preliminary speech the Judge warned the jury not to take the defendant's lifestyle too much into consideration in their deliberations. His condescending tone spoke volumes about his society. The following comes from the book.
"At any rate, in March of 1928, the prisoner, worn out, as she tells us, by his unceasing importunities, gave in, and consented to live on terms of intimacy with him, outside the bonds of marriage.

"Now you may feel, and quite properly, that this was a very wrong thing to do. You may, after making all allowances for this young woman's unprotected position, still feel that she was a person of unstable moral character. You will not be led away by the false glamour which certain writers contrive to throw about 'free love,' into thinking that this was anything but an ordinary, vulgar act of misbehavior. Sir Impey Biggs, very rightly using all his great eloquence on behalf of his client, has painted this action of Harriet Vane's in very rosy colours; he has spoken of unselfish sacrifice and self-immolation, and has reminded you that, in such a situation, the woman always has to pay more heavily than the man. You will not, I am sure, pay too much attention to this. You know quite well the difference between right and wrong in such matters, and you may think that, if Harriet Vane had not become to a certain extent corrupted by the unwholesome influences among which she lived, she would have shown a truer heroism by dismissing Philip Boyes from her society.

"But, on the other hand, you must be careful not to attach the wrong kind of importance to this lapse. It is one thing for a man or woman to live an immoral life, and quite another thing to commit murder. You may perhaps think that one step into the path of wrongdoing makes the next one easier, but you must not give too much weight to that conclusion. You are entitled to take it into account, but you must not be too much prejudiced."
The judge's disapprobation was palpable, yet his concern was genuine: he had to remind the jury that they were not to let their opinion of Harriet Vane's scandalous behavior dictate their judgment of the murder case.

This scene resonates because we've all heard about local and national scandals that have shaken our certainty that "that doesn't happen here" or "people of that class just don't behave that way". Well it does and they do. Yet folks go right back to believing otherwise, don't they?

Humans need to believe in things that are demonstrably untrue. In the case of sexual scandals, a community brings its collective hand to its mouth and gasps at one of their own having done something so shocking - so unheard of!

The first reason for this reaction is simple: it provides a way for a person to feel superior. She could be genuinely free of vice and fooling herself into thinking that sexual improprieties are rare. Maybe she has her own juicy skeletons but finds ways to rationalize them. Or perhaps she simply enjoys her cynical triumph in covering up her own liaisons better than that sap on the front page. Whatever the specifics, everyone in the community gets to feel superior.

Methinks there's also a potent genetic reason why folks doth protest too much. Let's assume that I'm hard-wired to spread my genes around while keeping my neighbor from doing so. How would I go about it? Well, fulminating about sexual improprieties wouldn't cost me anything but could yield two benefits: it could draw attention away from my own dalliances, and make any guilt-prone people within earshot that much more likely to keep it in their pants. It's a two-for-one deal: cover and sucker-bait! For that kind of reward I could see myself getting very noisy in my hypocrisy.

So people maintain their illusions of propriety by casting stones at those who violate them. And I believe that bendy people make a very convenient target. That's why straight people love to pretend that gay people don't exist, and why they freak out so much when gayness happens. It is in their best interests to play out both acts of the charade.

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