Robert Kurzban Ph.D.

Mind Design

Harassment With Impunity?

Why do we tolerate some harassment but not others?

Posted Aug 02, 2018

Sometimes the world goes on the attack and we applaud. Remember the dentist who killed Cecil the lion? Other times, people go on the attack and we want to rush to the defense. Why is it ok to harass the dentist but not ok to harass the breastfeeding mom? Last week the New York Times ran an interesting piece entitled, “Motherhood in the age of fear,” written by Kim Brooks, which helps clarify the answer. The author left her child in a car for five minutes to run an errand and, as a consequence, wound up with a warrant for her arrest. The piece reflects on the outsized attacks from both law enforcement – and everyday citizens – on parents who leave their children unattended – but safe – for short periods of time.

The attacks on parents leaving children unattended are relatively new. In some research on this topic interesting in its own right, Thomas et al. (2016) trace the concern over children left alone to the period between the 1970s – when Americans accepted that children could be left alone in parks, on their way to school, etc. – and the next twenty or so years, during which something of a moral panic emerged, and Americans in the modern era forbid their – and others’ – children from being left unattended for even short periods of time. The authors of this work suggest that this new norm was caused by media reports of the kidnapping of children, in turn leading people to fear for the unattended child.

Fear alone, however, doesn’t really explain the panic. After all, Thomas et al. say, “[t]he fact that many people irrationally fear air travel does not result in air travel being criminalized. Parents are not arrested for bringing their children with them on airplanes. In contrast, parents are arrested and prosecuted for allowing their children to wait in cars, play in parks, or walk through their neighborhoods without an adult.” The authors continue, quoting David Pimentel, who wrote: “In previous generations, parents who ‘let their kids run wild’ were viewed with some disdain by neighbors, perhaps, but subjected to no greater sanction than head wagging or disapproving gossip in the community. Today, such situations are far more likely to result in a call to Child Protective Services, with subsequent legal intervention.”

In short, as I have recently been discussing, the reaction to leaving children unattended has some of the feel of a moral panic: even small “infractions” – which might not even be against the law – are met with harsh censure and punishment.

Brooks goes on to make an interesting point. As she puts it in the subtitle of her article: “Women are being harassed and even arrested for making perfectly rational parenting decisions.” In the piece itself, she writes:

… it occurred to me that I had never used the word harassment to describe this situation. But why not? When a person intimidates, insults or demeans a woman on the street for the way she is dressed, or on social media for the way she speaks out, it’s harassment. But when a mother is intimidated, insulted or demeaned because of her parenting choices, we call it concern or, at worst, nosiness.

There is, I think, a deep idea here about morality. What distinguishes the cases she mentions here, how a woman is dressed versus parenting choices? As she points out in the article, the parenting choices in question are neither illegal nor dangerous, in parallel with clothing choices. The key difference is that – now, unlike in the 70s – these parenting choices have been moralized. Some subset of the population morally condemns these actions. It is not a coincidence that the art that accompanies the Times article is a person surrounded by frowning expressions in one frame and wagging fingers in another.

Here is the brief way to put this subtle but important point: as a society, we believe that it’s ok to harass people if they are doing something we morally condemn even if their action is protected by the law and is either minimally harmless or completely so. It’s important to note that whether or not we harass others probably depends a great deal on whether we think others morally condemn what they’re doing as well. The more we think others take our own moral position, the more likely we are to act.

My prior recent discussions illustrate this point. Certain people who exercise their right to free speech – and don’t hurt anyone – are harassed to the point of distraction, and the world applauds. It’s ok to harass someone who is perceived by observers to have done wrong, even if the law is on their side and no harm has been done. (Witch hunts illustrate this point.)

Note that the reverse is true. If the act in question is one that we see as morally acceptable, we object to harassment of the person engaged in the behavior. To return to the example above, while breastfeeding in public is protected in many places, the act is not protected under public indecency laws. What we find is that people who consider public breastfeeding immoral condemn mothers in the same way that Brooks describes. But others rush to the mother’s aid – instead of piling on – because they don’t moralize breastfeeding in public. Indeed, my favorite coffeeshop has a sign indicating their support, heading off any attempts to harass.

It goes still further. It’s not acceptable to harass people for doing things we don’t moralize even if they are harmful. As indicated above, we don’t wag our fingers at parents taking their children on planes, even if we think flying is dangerous. Just driving around in a car with a child is dangerous, but most people would not applaud a bystander yelling at a parent for doing so. Perhaps more cogently, consider how we would react to the person chastising a parent for feeding their child the 24 grams of fat and 60 grams of carbs in a happy meal. As long as the parent is doing something harmful but we don't see as immoral, finger wagging is verboten.

And it won’t do to say that it’s the danger that’s the difference here. The point of the Thomas et al. work is that the causality goes the other way. They write that “when people make a negative moral judgment about a parent who leaves her child alone, their estimate of the danger facing that child is higher than for a situation that objectively poses equal risk to the child, but does not elicit the same moral disapproval.” The moral judgment is driving the danger estimate.

The lessons for us as citizens seem clear enough. When you support the condemnation of someone who has done something within their rights but that you don’t like – especially if no harm is involved – consider whether piling on or supporting those that do is the ethical choice. Piling on might be fun. It might even feel right. When reflecting, consider all the people historically who have piled on when others committed behavior that was widely considered wrong: homosexuality, miscegenation, and so forth. Those people probably felt that they were on the side of the angels as well.

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