The sexual harassment debate: are we asking the right questions?

The first thing you need to know before you read this is that I have no intention of telling you what side of this debate I am on or which side you should be on. We already spend enough time (perhaps too much) doing that on facebook and twitter.

All I want you to do is to watch this short debate (about 9 mins) on whether acts like unwanted knee touching should be classified as sexual harassment and ask yourself these two questions:

  1. What does each panellist think sexual harassment actually means?
  2. What answer do they each think the other panellists gave to question 1?

First, let’s create a grid that will allow us to map out each panellist’s answers to both questions so we can compare them side by side.

Now, let’s answer the first question and see how each speaker defines sexual harassment — based on nothing more than what they said in the debate.

Next, we answer the second question, which will only be possible if each panellist has taken the time to directly comment on what the others have said instead of simply focusing on their own perspective, but we’ll do our best.

It took a fair amount of extrapolation to answer question 2 as rarely did any of the panellists explicitly state what they thought the others had said, but it was just about possible to work it out from how they responded to each other.

One immediate observation from looking at this grid is that what each panellist thought the others had said was often a distortion of what they actually said — even when they thought they agreed with each other.

So what?

Well, this may seem an obvious question, but how are you meant to respond to what someone said in a debate if you don’t know what they actually said?

More importantly, how do you know you are not being misled by someone who is deliberately distorting what other people said to make their own argument sound more credible unless you take a moment to find out?

Would it really change anything?

For starters, it would mean everyone taking the part in the debate and everyone watching would all be commenting on the same point of view and not multiple different versions of it, which is always helpful, especially when it comes to making important decisions on the back of that debate.

It would also make all types of debates in all types of forums, from the pub to the House of Commons that bit easier — think about every frustrating time someone has accidentally or wilfully twisted your words, forcing you to clarify what you said for 17th time instead of actually discussing it. The time you save and the good will you generate from making the other person feel like you are actually listening to them massively increases the chances of your debate having a positive conclusion — even if you still end up disagreeing.

Most importantly of all, it may just change the way you judge what others have to say. Consider Kat Barnyard for a second, whose view was perhaps least understood by her fellow panellists — mainly because it was so different from their own opinions, which had that bit more in common with each other.

If you accept her point that men are more likely to abuse their power over women if they have been taught from a young age that it is OK to make sexual contact with someone even if she hasn’t given her explicit consent, then you may well go on to accept that condemning any unwanted sexual contact — even knee-touching — and changing the way men are taught to view women, will also lead to a reduction in the rate of violent sexual assault and rape.

Kat Barnyard (left) with Dr Joanna Williams (right) — photo from Channel 4 News

But, if you think — as Joanna Williams did — that she was saying unwanted knee-touching is just as serious an offence as rape, then you may, quite understandably, conclude that rape causes far more direct harm than knee-touching and find yourself disagreeing with Kat Barnyard’s point of view.

What can we do differently?

Simply put, check that what you or someone else thinks another person said is what they actually said (whether that reflects what they meant is on them).

So, if you’re taking part in a debate, start off by summarising what you think the person you are responding to said and check if it’s right, then explain why you agree or disagree and how that led you to reach your own conclusion.

If you’re watching other people debate, take a moment to ask yourself the same two questions I asked you about the sexual harassment debate: what did each person say; and what do the others think they said?

That way, whatever your reaction to a viewpoint you disagree with, you will know for sure that it at least wasn’t the product of a mere misunderstanding or a deliberate attempt to manipulate you into rejecting an idea or an opinion you might otherwise have judged differently.

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