Never before have so many people watched an expressionless woman in a nondescript outfit traipse through New York City. Millions of people viewed a viral video last week that showed the woman getting all manner of uninvited and unwelcome compliments during hours of walking in the Big Apple.
The video was a brilliant stunt by the anti-street-harassment group Hollaback! and prompted the Great Catcalling Debate of 2014.
Some of what the woman hears, as captured by a hidden camera, is relatively innocuous, like the overfriendly “How are you doing?” Some of it is obnoxious and leering, and clearly out of bounds. Some of it is downright menacing, as guys demand that she respond to their unlikely overtures or walk beside her for long stretches, unbidden.
The video was taken as an indictment of the boorishness of men, a charge for which millennia of human history had already provided more than ample evidence.
It always has been true, and always will, that men notice attractive women. When Marilyn Monroe, previously known as “Norma Jeane the String Bean,” began to get her famous figure, men honked at her as she walked to school. “Suddenly, everything seemed to open up,” she remembered later, fondly. “The world became friendly.”
This is no excuse for catcalling. There is no reason to shout at random women — ever. There is no reason to comment on a stranger’s personal appearance — ever. There is no reason to go out of your way to make someone else feel uncomfortable on the street — ever.
These are things that used to be self-evident to the gentleman, who not only wouldn’t holler at a woman, but, once upon a time, opened doors for her and yielded his seat to her. The gentleman was a product of culture. He reflected society’s interest in the imperative once identified by Thomas Sowell: “Each new generation born is in effect an invasion of civilization by little barbarians, who must be civilized before it is too late.” Especially the males.
This is not the language of Hollaback!. It breaks out every “-ism” and phobia in the book to condemn catcalling. It can be, according to the aggressively politically correct feminist group, “sexist, racist, transphobic, homophobic, ableist, sizest and/or classist.” That pretty much covers the bases. It would be much easier to say that it is rude and uncouth.
The left’s decades-long project, though, has been to deconstruct cultural norms and the rules of common courtesy and then, as it suits its agenda, rebuild some of them on a stilted, politicized basis through coercion.
Viewed through this prism, politically correct speech codes can be seen as twisted mandates for a kind of politeness. The new rules on campus against sexual assault can be viewed as an indirect attempt to recover older attitudes toward sex. And the push by Hollaback! to criminalize catcalling can be considered an effort to impose basic propriety in public by force of law.
Of course, no legal regime can substitute for the web of informal rules and private institutions, family foremost among them, that are civilization’s tried-and-true methods of inculcating standards.
And outlawing catcalling is obviously insane. Who determines the offense? Are we really going to have cops deciding if a “Have a nice day!” was overly exuberant and pointedly directed at an attractive woman, or an innocent expression of cheery good will? Maybe this is what New York City police officers can do with all the time they have on their hands now that they are less occupied with trying to find illegal guns.
In making its case that catcalling should be illegal, Hollaback! drones on about the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s definitions of harassment and other legalisms. Fundamentally, though, what it wants on the streets is something that sounds embarrassingly retrograde: good manners. Shouldn’t we all.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: email@example.com.