Since we no longer live in an age defined by Debrett’s, etiquette is turning into something of a minefield: it is difficult, even impossible, to work out exactly what one should do in many situations. This seems to apply particularly to matters of romance, which perhaps accounts for at least part of the boom in online dating. However, I did think that one immutable universal in all versions of the dating game was that the refusal to take ‘no’ for an answer marked a man out, for all time, as ‘not a gentleman’.
I am not, here, referring to criminal offences like rape or sexual assault. That point is very important. A refusal to take no for an answer in those circumstances marks a man out as a criminal, a very different proposition. Criminals, in so far as it is possible to do so, belong in gaol, not on online dating sites or in pubs offering to buy you a drink or [insert social activity here].
What I am referring to is social etiquette, courtesy, manners and the like. It is possible to be an ill-mannered oaf and spend one’s entire life out of gaol. It may not, however, be possible to be an ill-mannered oaf and maintain gainful employment for a lengthy period, a long-term relationship or even decent social ties over time. This appears, to me, to be fairly basic: manners cost nothing, as my father used to say, and may smooth one’s path through life considerably. It is worth investing in them. If you don’t understand what amounts to good manners, then buy the Debrett’s guide linked above. I’m sure there are American and Australian equivalents.
Why a ‘Miss Manners post’, I hear you ask, when this blog has been sticking to its legal knitting of late?
I have watched, over the last few months, various online communities explode over what amounts to bad manners. One of those communities is one in which I have had long-term involvement. The other is one where I have only ever had observer status. At first I put it down to the nature of the internet, where people feel they are free to write things they would never be able to say in person (at least not without serious social, and perhaps even physical, consequences). However, I am starting to think that I’m engaging in a little ‘excusitis’ of my own, and I’m reminded of another piece of advice from my father: only a bad tradesman blames his tools. The behaviour, too, is starting to bleed out beyond the internet, into regular social activities.
There are various manifestations of these atrocious manners, but they seem (to me, at least) to boil down to an inability, on the part of certain men, to take ‘no’ for an answer. I think this is tied to participation in various ‘geek’ subcultures (both on-line and off-line, so while it may be convenient to blame the internet, blaming the internet is unfair). Participation in these varied subcultures is seen to give people something of a pass for rudeness. The justification proffered is that participation in the subculture resulted in bullying when the man in question was young, conferring victim status on him as an adult. And, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere on this blog, wrapping oneself in victimhood is often a way to avoid having to take personal responsibility–for anything.
Of course, it remains true that the sine qua non of much dating and romance involves men making the first move. This is probably unfair, but as it has biological origins, I doubt it’s going to change very much anytime soon except at the margins. That means men are stuck with getting a lot of ‘noes’. Accepting a ‘no’ with courtesy has always been something I have admired in my male friends and colleagues, including men with whom I disagree on just about everything else. These men marked themselves out to me as gentlemen by accepting a rejection with good grace and moving on.
Until very, very recently, I had never met a man who handled a rejection–whether for cause or when no reason was offered–without courtesy. I have had my share of messy break-ups (haven’t we all?) but even the worst of them (it involved the male in question turning up to denounce me and all my works and all my ways on national television, as in, The 7.30 Report) never, ever presumed that he had a right to keep dating me after the relationship was over, as though my objections to him didn’t count. He moved on and found someone else.
However, of late I have started to encounter ‘geeky’ men (I’m sorry for this appallingly inexact term, but that’s all there is, alas) who demand–even when others find their geek-activity completely boredom-inducing or otherwise irritating–that women date them. This is like women who demand that their large dogs complete with muddy paws be allowed to take up residence on sundry boyfriends’ beds. It is rudeness, pure and simple. Just as the woman in question needs to find a dog-loving boyfriend who doesn’t mind muddy paw-prints, the geek needs to find a girlfriend who shares his interest in whatever geekiness happens to be his passion. And if he finds that men outnumber women in his particular geek environment, then I suggest he learn a little bit about the law of one price and modify his behaviour accordingly.
In an efficient market, all identical goods must have the same price; however, when there are fewer women than men in a given market (and assuming that most people in that market would like either sex or a relationship), then their relative scarcity presents women with an arbitrage opportunity. In financial markets, if the price of a security, commodity or asset is different in two different markets, then an arbitrageur will purchase the asset in the cheaper market and sell it where prices are higher. Women, when they have scarcity value in a given market, do not have to tolerate bad manners. Similarly, the male who shows that he is not ‘an identical good’ by exhibiting courtesy and charm will be able to make the most of the market in which he finds himself, always acknowledging however that arbitrage profits will persist until the price converges across markets (something that may never happen; it is often argued that perfect competition and efficient markets only exist in economics textbooks).
In other words, geek boys, smarten up your act. I mean, really smarten it up.
While doing the research for this post, I found that the largest gaming convention in North America has to remind attendees to wash daily and use deodorant in its program. I’ve seen a man who a woman rejected on the basis of his online gaming hobby tell her she ‘needed a good raping’. And there was worse than that in some places, which had to be closed down on the basis that they had reached the incitement stage. Incitement, in case you didn’t know, is a crime, and I’m afraid saying ‘it was only on the internet’ will not impress any judge of my acquaintance.
There’s another element to this ‘I’m-a-victim-so-y’all-hafta-feel-so-sorry-for-me’ dance, and that concerns an inability to draw meaningful distinctions. Lawyers have worked hard for many years to teach the general public how to draw a distinction between crimes and torts/delicts. As I’ve pointed out before, torts and delicts are civil wrongs, which means they are generally disputes between two private parties and are constructed in such a way as to permit the apportionment of liability (fault, or culpa). Both Roman law and common law have relatively few strict liability torts or delicts, and where they do, these tend to involve things that are ‘inherently dangerous’, like an explosives factory or water-filled mineshaft: Rylands v Fletcher  UKHL 1. Scots law manages to do without strict liability entirely.
This means that while you have indeed been run down by a motorist, the fact that you were staggeringly drunk and weaving across the road at the same time may mean that you contributed to your own harm. Various factors come into play, of course: was the motorist speeding? Did the publican continue to serve you after you were visibly inebriated? How busy was the road? Was there a pedestrian crossing? And so on and so forth. The point is that a person may well be a victim, but it is sometimes entirely appropriate to ask whether that victim contributed to his or her own loss. This is known as contributory negligence, or (in attenuated form), comparative negligence.
By contrast, when it comes to crime, then no matter how stupid the victim was, no matter how much he or she contributed to his or her own loss, the state must punish the offender without any discount based on the victim’s behaviour (there may be discounts for other reasons, but that is not relevant here). This was the common sense of the Roman jurists 2000 years ago when it came to rape, and is something that Anglophone sexual assault law has developed both on its own account and as a result of Roman influence, as I discussed in my post on the DSK case. That is why the Crown prosecutes crimes, not private individuals: we all have an interest in preventing crime, while only victims and insurance companies have an interest in preventing torts/delicts.
In other words, there are relatively confined circumstances when an inquiry into the victim’s behaviour must be ruled out of court ab initio, as it were. Most of the time, an exploration of why an individual is a victim (of a chronic inability to get a date, say) is an interesting and illuminating exercise.
Just on that last issue, before writing this post, I had a chat with my partner about some of the things I planned to discuss. He made the very good point that–when it comes to ‘geek’ cultures and the social ineptitude often on display therein–there is a problem of causation involved. Are many geeks socially inept and ill-mannered first, so they bury themselves deep in subcultures where obsessiveness and ineptitude are rewarded, or does the participation in obsessive subcultures facilitate the (later) development of social ineptitude?
My suspicion is that the social isolation antedates the subculture participation, and may indeed have a biological basis in some of the conditions on the autistic spectrum, but I’m a lawyer, not a neurologist, and I really don’t know. I wonder, too, at the extent to which some manifestations of ‘geekiness’ represent an inability to progress beyond emotional adolescence; one account of a man in his mid-twenties still obsessed with Pokémon along with ten-year-olds really disturbed me. As regular readers of this blog know, I’m quite happy to make criticisms of taste based on what I think are fairly objective standards of excellence. I do this not only because I have considerable expertise in cultural pursuits, but also because I think that a given individual’s cultural pursuits and political beliefs are separable, and that heeding the former at the expense of the latter is deeply patronising, as I argue here.
I’m curious to learn more, because if nothing else, the recent exercises in geekish manners blindness–both online and off–show that at least some victims are contributing substantially to their own losses. And because we as a culture valorize victimhood, they are being allowed to argue that they don’t have to change their behaviour.
As someone else once remarked–in an entirely different context–’it’s a funny old world’.
[Note: This post was inspired by this lengthy thread on a blog that I don't typically read; it would not normally be the sort of commentary with which I have a great deal of sympathy. However, the quality of the discussion is both excellent and--particularly in the comments--psychologically very revealing.]
[UPDATE: I have discovered that the non-washing, non-deodorant problem is far more widespread than I feared, as PZ Myers points out in his commentary on this post. If what he says is true--and I don't doubt him for a moment--then prisoners are better turned out than some of the people he describes. I saw a goodly bunch of them on Monday, in point of fact, just for recent confirmation].