Books and Code · A Miscellany

On Lazy Criticism


The latest target of faux outrage is this video depicting “street harassment.” A woman walks the streets of NYC for 10 hours and records the unsolicited attention of the men she passes. It claims “100+ incidents of verbal street harassment” occurred over that time (a rate of one every six minutes). I believe the video shows only a subset (I didn’t count) and presumably the most egregious ones at that.

One can question how representative this is or where to draw the line on what qualifies as “harassment” versus general “asshole-ry,” but for the most part the criticism I’ve seen has argued against points this group does not appear to be making. These critics are intellectually lazy.

For starters, the video is almost entirely focused on raising awareness. It simply depicts what happened. It makes no blanket statements about all men being harassers nor does it claim men enjoy street “privileges,” as this Funny or Die parody does.

While humorous, the above parody (and plenty of not-funny critiques that mirror its sentiment) doesn’t actually address the substantive point of the video. Unless you deny that this is a legitimate issue for women (and I don’t think any honest man could), quibbling about the amplitude is misguided. There are plenty of relatively rare occurrences that are worth pointing out and calling bullshit on–and I don’t even buy that it is rare. (Note that I have to say this during a time when the chatter about Ebola in the US is incessant.)

Would a rigorous experiment have made a male-centered control video? Yes. If you think the depiction is not a gender-specific phenomenon, then by all means prove it with a real male-centered version. I’m eager to see the count of catcalls aimed at men.

The video does not call for new legislation as far as I can tell. In fact, the sponsoring website, Hollaback!, focuses very heavily on personal action over vague political statements. They encourage being vocal about your disapproval of this behavior, primarily through an app where you can document things as they happen.

What is there to criticize about that if you ascribe to libertarian ideas of freedom? These women are free to state their case, they are free to take video, and they are appealing to effect a change in behavior through the direct actions of individuals. Plenty of male libertarians would love this idea if it was documenting problems with the police state, such as inappropriate traffic stops and the like. How is this any different?

“But what’s to be done?!” The conversation eventually comes down to this with a well-meaning critic. Hollaback addresses this very clearly if they would have taken five minutes to look instead of rushing to half-ass, knee-jerk critique. Do they ask you to vote Democrat? Read The Feminine Mystique? remind hetero- white men of their privilege? No, they ask you to be a better bystander. THE HORROR! THE HUBRIS!