Dartmouth university has an ambitious plan to reduce (ideally eliminate) sexual violence and gender-based harassment on its campus. As the father of a soon-t0-be frosh daughter, I’d like all colleges to succeed in doing so. But this bit, I confidently predict, will not happen:
We will create an online “Consent Manual,” including realistic scenarios and potential sanctions, to reduce ambiguity about what is acceptable and what is not. This Consent Manual will be in place by the end of summer 2015
They may have a manual in place by then, but it will do little to reduce ambiguity.
Some behaviors that occur are unambiguously inappropriate. But other behaviors are inherently ambiguous, and no manual will make them less so. In fact the more realistic the scenarios are, the more the scenarios will reflect the actual ambiguity that necessarily exists in interpersonal communications, of which romantic/sexual communications are just a subset.
Further, the more we emphasize that it is the response to a communicative act or statement that controls our interpretation of the situation, rather than the intent of the act or statement, the more we embed ambiguity in the situation. That’s not in itself a critique of considering the response in our interpretation. While I don’t think we should ignore intent, likewise we should consider response because sometimes intent, while not malicious, is carelessly ignorant of predictable response. But not all response is predictable–what disturbs one person does not always disturb another, and for the person making the communicative act or statement it is often impossible to know what response is likely. The only way, in that case, to reduce ambiguity is to say <i>all</i> communications of a romantic/sexual nature are off-limits because <i>some</i> persons will be disturbed by them.
Colleges have been making efforts to reduce this ambiguity for a number of years now through sexual assault awareness programs and guidebooks. If it could be done, we ought to be seeing real progress by now, and Dartmouth should be able to find a standard model. This should be fairly plug ‘n’ play at this point. It’s not, and the reason is that they’re chasing a goal that is well-intended, but not humanly possible.
I support efforts to make people more aware of actions and statements that are not really ambiguous. In the area of inherently ambiguous actions and statements, though, I would like us to drop the pretense that we can eliminate or even substantially reduce the ambiguity. Perhaps we’d do better to emphasize the inherent ambiguity, and tell everyone that this is why communicators should be cautious and why respondents should grant some leeway, and why each side should be quick to apologize, rather than condemn.