A half-century ago the U.S. Supreme Court went to the movies. Well, one movie in particular: The Lovers, if you have to know. It was directed by a quite famous French auteur, Louis Malle, and did big box office overseas, and in the U.S., too, its reputation having preceded its journey across the Atlantic. The film’s plot involved adultery, or so I read — I’ve not seen it — and for all I know it may have exposed a bit of feminine dermis. One has to believe that, however graphic it might have been for its time, and whatever its theme, it likely would be judged only a bit naughty today.
But, in 1964, some judging was required: if officials in New York and Los Angeles and wherever else yawned, shrugged or simply stayed away, The Lovers stirred the stewards of public morality in Ohio to outrage. (Or so they said.) Obscene, they declared the movie, and banned it. Naturally, the distributor appealed, and the case wound its way to Washington. Naturally, the justices would be required to examine the evidence.
Or not: Associate Justices Hugo Black and William Douglas, legendarily, resolutely opposed to government censorship in any form, are said to have routinely declined to join their colleagues in screening such — evidence — since the issue, in their eyes, was moot; the First Amendment immunized freedom of expression. (Some of the Brethren — literally, as the Court was decades from seating its first woman justice — have since been described as more than willing, even eager, to set aside the legal briefs and zestfully review purportedly illegal productions.)
State and local obscenity statutes, broadly dissimilar, were then a legal tangle for appellate courts, the nation’s highest tribunal included. The seven justices not named Black and Douglas struggled with The Lovers before a majority finally declared it safe for the Buckeye State’s sensitive eyes. Another decade or so would pass before the Court essentially closed the censorship file on all save the most grotesque depictions. But the Ohio case produced a phrase that won immediate immortality in the annals of American jurisprudence. Joining the Court’s majority, Justice Potter Stewart confessed his inability to define obscenity with any legal precision – [b]ut I know it when I see it.”
And what a long-winded way of getting to the point. I’ve no hesitation in asserting that never have I been guilty of sexual harassment. Flirting, maybe, though not in the 35 years since my wife foolishly said “I will.” Off-color language in the presence of women? Yes, regrettably, even when uttered in moments of anger or sheer exasperation, even when the women within earshot were equally inclined to fire off expletives.
But of late I’ve been asking women friends, acquaintances and co-workers if ever I have made them uncomfortable. (So far, a surprised, sometimes curious “No,” though perhaps one or more are simply forgiving, or forgetful.) My queries, of course, stem from the cascade of headlines involving prominent men whose alleged offensive conduct was far more than verbal and may have, in fact, been criminal.
Like any number of men of my generation I am prone to drape an arm around the shoulders of women I know, or presume I know well, at moments casual or stressful, celebratory or solemn. A quick kiss to the cheek or forehead; I do that, too, and sometimes even to men friends. I cannot recall an instance when any person of either gender recoiled at these gestures, though it’s more than possible that such was their instinct. Weddings, funerals, promotions, hirings or firings or layoffs — just a reflexive (though not insincere, please) act of affection, or sympathy, or congratulations. Since the women often reciprocated, stupid me, I never gave it a second thought. Now I do, and I suspect its past time. I’m at pains to remember those occasions (other than a funeral) when a woman outside my immediate or extended family wrapped an arm around my shoulders, or planted a speedy, spontaneous smooch on my cheek.
I have seen sexual harassment in the workplace, sympathized with its targets, its victims. And I doubt I’m alone, as witness, as witness who did nothing to stop it. I would be horrified to learn that, my honorable intentions regardless, any demonstration of companionship or comradarie would be misconstrued. Or viewed as condescending.
So I’m trying to be — what? Modern? Sensitive? Enlightened? And more cautious in expression? All of that, and still be — what? Collegial? Compassionate? That, too. And trust that women important to me will know it when they see it.