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On "locker room talk" as an issue of public ethics

October 09, 2016
The past few days in US politics have been unprecedented, but it's important not to let the absurdity drag us down. Approached properly, recent events give us ample grist for reflection on issues of everyday importance.
I am, of course, referring to the leak of a video in which Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump describes sexually assaulting women. As he and his shrinking party of loyalists attempt to spin this as embarrassing but ultimately inconsequential "locker room talk", let's take this opportunity to home in on three aspects of the scandal that are relevant to public ethics.
First, in discussions of public ethics the precision of language and clarity of concepts are highly important. In this connection we should note that media outlets are almost universally referring to Trump's speech in the video as "lewd". To do so is to miss the point of what he is describing, which is the sexual assault of women. Using the word "lewd" to describe his words undercuts their gravity, since as the Oxford English Dictionary tells us "lewd" only means "crude and offensive in a sexual way". The problem is not that Trump has been recorded saying unseemly sexual things that make him appear "unpresidential". The problem is that he is bragging about sexually touching women without their consent, which is both criminal and immoral. I would like very much for someone to install a filter on my google account that replaces "lewd" with the word "rapey" in connection with this developing story. 
Second, and related, the scandal sheds light on a contested but central boundary in public ethics: the one between private and public. Let's pause over Trump's insistence in the second presidential debate that this was all just "locker room talk", that he has never touched women sexually without their consent. Suppose that to be true. Even if it were, men are under a moral obligation not to practice such talk, and to challenge it when they hear it. Denigration of women in speech, even if it is between men in private, minimizes the severity of the mistreatment of women. Differently put, it normalizes it. And since normative language is publicly transmissable, and since we can't control its effects on those who hear it, the "locker room talk" of private individuals becomes a public issue. Larry May and Robert Strikwerda did a great job of explaining this 22 years ago in the widely reproduced article "Men in Groups: Collective Responsibility for Rape". We need to catch up to their point of view. Note as well that "locker room talk" cannot be automatically reduced to a defense-of-free speech issue; the claim that men should not say certain things is a moral claim. It is not a claim that the government or any other body should have jurisdiction over what men say in private. 
Finally, the scandal helps us to understand how power interlocks to create complex forms of oppression. The fact that this particular scandal appears to be the one to send Trump's campaign over the cliff is very telling. As my colleague Rajesh has documented here on the blog, Trump's words have been hateful and toxic for a very long time. Why has his rapey language done what his Islamophobia, racism and ableism failed to do? The answer is  evident in what Republican men defecting from his campaign are now saying - that they can no longer look their wives and daughters in the eye if they continue to support him. In attacking women, Trump has finally gotten under the skin of a critical mass of white men. So while this weekend's scandal has given Trump's detractors cause to celebrate, it is also an indication that there is a long way to go in the US to build a culture more rooted in the defence and empowerment of all people, from all walks of life. 

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