There’s a lot of meaning packed into the closing pair of sentences of Kirsty Strickland’s piece in The National. Much of it, I strongly suspect, very far from what Kirsty Strickland intended. The penultimate one contains an illogic which would be amusing were it not for the fact that it betrays such a worldview so naive as to be inevitable a source of constant stress. Kirsty writes,
Whether a woman is walking down the street or dancing on TV, her appearance is nobody’s business but her own.
So the individual in question is APPEARING on TV, an essentially visual medium, but their APPEARANCE doesn’t matter. They are, presumably voluntarily, APPEARING on a show watched by millions, but those millions are not entitled to have an opinion about her APPEARANCE. They are willingly putting themselves on display in the hope and expectation of being seen by a huge audience, but nobody in that audience is allowed to form and express an opinion about what they are seeing.
This individual has doubtless spent many hours thinking about what they will wear and almost as many hours having makeup applied and nails manicured and hair styled etc. so as to look a particular way, but nobody is permitted to comment on the way they look. The audience is supposed to see the performance, but nothing else. Despite the fact that so much effort has been put into managing all aspects of this person’s appearance preparatory to willingly putting themselves on display before what they hope will be a huge crowd for the purpose of being judged, none of those aspects are to be regarded as part of the basis for judgment. They’re putting themselves out there to be looked at having taken great care over how they look, but how they look is not the business of those being invited to look.
If I seem to have overdone the explication there it’s only because it can be hard to get one’s head around such silliness. But I’m not one to content myself with dismissing something as silliness and move on. I tend to critically analyse such statements. I have been sent a message by Kirsty. I’m supposed to read and interpret that message. That’s my role in all of this. I’m the audience. The whole point of Kirsty writing the article was a desire on Kirsty’s part to convey something to me using words. Her choice of words.
That is the important term here – ‘choice’. We assess people on the basis of the choices they make. More precisely, we judge and discriminate on the basis of what other choose to tell us of their choices. Although often they tell us more than they intend to about those choices. That’s because – to somewhat oversimplify as sometimes we must – by default our communications are totally open. We want to communicate. Effective communication is essential for a social species. so we’ve evolved to communicate rather than conceal. Concealing takes effort. That effort frequently fails.
The point is that it is perfectly legitimate to judge people on their choices. Especially the choices they make public. They make those choices in order to send a message. They are telling us who they are. They want us to understand who they are and accept them. We in turn have to choose whether to accept them. We choose what kind of relationship we want with that person on the basis of the information they give us – both intentionally and otherwise. If somebody chooses to have a swastika tattooed on their forehead then I am entitled to assume they are telling me they are a Nazi and decide whether I want to associate with them on the basis of that freely given information.
When the person Kirsty writes about appears on our TV screens they do so having made a raft of choices about the message they want to send and the best way to send it. To say we must disregard those parts of that message which might by our judgement are negative is beyond silly. It’s saying people shouldn’t behave like people. That we shouldn’t discriminate on the basis of the choices made by others. We are, presumably, allowed positive opinions and neutral opinions, but no negative opinions. Although even expressing a positive opinion is fraught with dangers as it may be a matter on which you’re not allowed to have an opinion at all.
Kirsty must be constantly upset. Everybody around her is doing it wrong. They’re all looking at each other and presenting themselves to one another in an incessant interchange of messages and making decisions and choices and judgements on the basis of that information. And that’s not how it’s supposed to be.
It is not only perfectly legitimate to judge people on the basis of their evident choices, it is essential that we do so. If we don’t differentiate; if we don’t discriminate, then how can we avoid danger? Or discomfort? Everybody is not the same. To behave towards them as if they were all the same is to live in a false reality. How else might we discriminate usefully other than on the basis of the other’s evident choices? Whether a person is appearing on television or just walking down the street, how they dress and disport themselves is a matter of choice. It is information. It is sending a message. Some people may read that message wrongly. But we can’t pretend that it isn’t a message.
The corollary is that it is not legitimate to judge people on the basis of things that are not a matter of their choice. Skin colour being an obvious example. Sex being another. A person’s skin colour or sex or any feature bequeathed to them by nature tells you nothing useful about the character and personality of the individual. Making detailed judgements about the individual on the basis of their skin colour or sex is wrong because these things are not a matter of choice. Forming opinions about an individual on the basis of things that are not a matter of their choice comes to be socially unacceptable and morally reprehensible because it is maladaptive. It’s just not useful and may be very harmful. Judgements made on the basis of things like skin colour and sex will inevitably tend to be erroneous. People are far too complex to be fairly assessed on the basis of such low-grade information.
Because people are complex there are grey areas. Areas where it is a matter of debate whether or to what extent personal choice is involved. Religion is one such. When a person is brought up from birth immersed in a particular belief system it is debatable difficult to know how much personal choice is involved. Body shape can be another area where there is uncertainty. To some degree our body shape may reflect our choices. Under normal circumstances weight can be managed. If somebody is overweight they can choose to reduce their weight. But not always and probably not easily. The best we can say is that a person’s body shape MIGHT tell us something useful about the individual. But it is far from being reliable information. The less reliable information is, the less we should rely on it. Duh!
T remark that a person is “chubby” may be a bit rude, but it’s hardly a hanging offence. Especially if that person is so unconcerned about their chubbiness as to flaunt it on our TV screens. That IS a choice. It’s perfectly fair to use that choice as part of the information used to form a mental model of the person. To draw hugely significant conclusions from such choices would be foolish. Fat means lazy, for example. It doesn’t. Not necessarily. So it’s not good information. The choice to go on TV when overweight IS informative. But not very. And if it says anything at all about the person it’s nothing negative. It says they are relaxed about their body shape. Which is generally a good thing.
What about the other sentence?
It’s no wonder so many people struggle with body image issues when you’ve got men like Allen trying to pass off cruelty as entertainment.
Cruelty? Really? Overstatement for effect, perhaps? A bit of journalistic hyperbole? Personally, I don’t find shows such as Strictly Come Dancing entertaining. But the judgmentalness is part of the entertainment. A big part. Contestants appear on the show in order to be judged. People are entertained by watching them being judged. Even if the comment was cruel rather than just discourteous, both rudeness and cruelty are essential elements of that form of entertainment. Which is a large part of the reason for me disliking it. The contestants must know this. They’d have to be very stupid indeed to be unaware of what kind of show they’ve agreed to take part in. It’s hardly appropriate for them to then complain about being judged.
People find shows like Strictly Come Dancing fascinating for the same reason they get hooked on ‘the soaps’. Both put aspects of real-life human behaviour on display in an exaggerated form. We are constantly seeking information to help us map our social world. We watch how others behave so as to learn how we should behave. Drama – and Strictly Come Dancing is a form of drama – gives us concentrated doses of human behaviour. This appeals very powerfully to instincts ‘hard-wired- in our minds by evolution. Strictly Come Dancing presents us with a distillation of the judgemental behaviour we all encounter and indulge in every waking moment of our lives.
We read the work of columnists like Kirsty Strickland for much the same reason. We hope their analysis and perspective and commentary will help us in our constant endeavour to better map or worlds. That doesn’t mean we take their views as our own. What columnists write can be useful even if you disagree. It still adds something to your thinking. But we look to be be influenced in some way by what we read. The form and manner of that influence will depend very much on the reader. But there’s always some influence, however tiny.
Which is why I find the subtext of those two closing sentences more than a little troubling. These two sentences seem to me to casually and perhaps unintentionally portray women as perpetual victims and men as the invariable perpetrators. I worry about that. I worry about the influence it may have. I worry that it adds to a mass of material that has the effect of persuading women they are ‘nature’s victims’. That it represents men as the wrongdoers is less problematic as it is so frequently the case. But few things are better designed to make someone a victim than behaving like a victim. And if an individual has bought into the idea that they are ‘meant’ to be victims, they are more likely to behave in the ways that attract the attention of predators.
It is pointless saying that there shouldn’t be predators. There are. They exist. And so long as they do then it benefits potential prey to behave as little like prey as possible. Anything which might contribute to convincing women that they are prey has to be unhelpful. Maybe that is what should be “strictly off limits”.
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