Politics & Policy

How the Far Left Hijacked a Cat-Calling Debate And Started to Eat Itself

A viral video about street harassment doesn’t fit the desired narrative.

A video depicting a woman walking around New York City and, through no fault of her own, being intermittently approached or cat-called by strangers has become an Internet sensation this week, racking up hits and provoking outrage across the political spectrum. In the course of just a few days, millions upon millions of people have shared the piece, almost all of them appending to the link their own passionate disavowals and earnest calls to action. Initially, its progenitor, a group named “Hollaback,” expressed the hope that the piece “would make an impact.” Quietly, they must be thrilled with the result: In a single week, the spot has had 15 million views, an achievement that places it firmly in the viral hall of fame. Publicly, however, the outfit has been forced to apologize, its victory having turned somewhat sour. What could possibly have happened?

As it has grown in popularity, the video has been transformed into a blank canvas, onto which America’s brave advocates of hyphenated-justice have sought to project their favored social theories. Evidently unwilling to let the spot stand on its own, Purdue’s Roxanne Gay wrote sadly that “it’s difficult and uncomfortable to admit that we have to talk about race/class/gender/sexuality/ability/etc, all at once.” Alas, she was not alone. Soon, the claims of “sexism” had been joined by accusations of “racism” and of “classism,” Hollaback had been forced to acknowledge that it had upset the more delicate among us, and those who had celebrated the video had been denounced as unreconstructed bigots. By this process was its message diluted and appropriated, the country’s most prominent peddlers of grievance and discord electing to squabble and bicker over its meaning, and to strip it of its value in favor of their own, fringe fixations.

“The fact that the video chooses to showcase the experience of a white woman experiencing harassment almost exclusively at the hands of black and Latino men,” Brooklyn Magazine’s Kristin Iverson proposed earlier this week, “is a pretty clear indication of who the audience for this video is supposed to be, namely, those who seek to protect and defend innocent white women, aka the already existing societal power structure.” This theme was picked up in more explicit terms elsewhere, the less direct references to the “power structure” quickly giving way to overt accusations of white supremacy. “Thousands of satisfied racists are sharing that viral catcalling video,” griped Lindy West at the Daily Dot, lamenting that its creators had imposed “manipulative, specific, politicized constraints on the issue of street harassment” and thereby permitted “the bulk of the audience to divorce themselves from the problem.” Yesterday, the Root’s Dion Rabouin dispensed with euphemism entirely, confirming that “some of the video’s intentional choices seem to play on the Birth of a Nation trope that white women simply aren’t safe from sex-crazed black and brown men.” How that’s for a thumb in the eye for the millions who shared the spot on their Facebook pages?

In the exquisitely calibrated judgment of The Nation’s “racial justice” guru, Aura Bogado, the spot was “deeply problematic,” serving not to highlight the frequency with which women are bothered on the street, but instead perpetuating “the myth of the cult of white white womanhood by literally placing this white woman in neighborhoods where men of color will be the ones who catcall (or, in some instances, say hello to) her.” “Doing so,” Bogado writes, “makes it appear as if men of color are the perpetrators of all that is bad on this planet, which can only be balanced with the exigent need to therefore save white women above all else.” The only solution, she says, is to remake the video with a “universalizing” cast: the camera centering on, “say, a black trans woman.”

Quite why there would be nothing “manipulative,” “specific,” or “politicized” inherent to a project such as this is never adequately explained. Indeed, if Bogado got her way, I daresay that we would face a different set of problems. Were a “black trans woman” to be filmed being catcalled or criticized even once by a white construction worker, many of those who are currently twisting themselves into knots would no doubt write four-hour operas on the incident. All told, it is more likely to be the case that Bogado and her fellow travelers are vexed by this video not because there is anything much wrong with it, but because it does not offer a message that is useful to them. Thus must a tool intended to raise awareness about a social ill be destroyed in the name of justice. It’s a funny old world.

Consider how far its critics are stretching to discredit the experiment’s results. On Wednesday, Roxanne Gay suggested with palpable irritation that “the racial politics of the video are f****d up. Like, she didn’t walk through any white neighborhoods?” For her part, Salon’s Emily Gould went full circle, seeking to justify the behavior of the maligned cat-callers by submitting that they had been forced into it by the actions of white people writ large. “This kind of harassment,” Gould wrote, “can be a way marginalized groups talk back to the white gentrifiers taking over their neighborhoods.” In and of itself, this view strikes me as being grotesquely condescending — the perverse cousin, perhaps, of precisely the sort of racial stereotyping that progressives believe they have been divinely called upon to destroy.

To contend that the minorities depicted in the video are mere victims of circumstance and that they have been forced by their conditions into badgering innocent women on the street is to contend that those minorities lack agency, intelligence, sensitivity, and the capacity to reason — that they are child-like figures who act on their base instincts and who need excusing and explaining by their betters. Oddly enough, it is also to contend that the victim was either a “white gentrifier” herself, or a proxy for white gentrifiers, and that she therefore deserved the treatment she received. This presumption, it should go without saying, is typically anathema to the arbiters of feminist thought. One cannot help but wonder whether, weighed down by their own contradictions, the champions of “empowerment” have at last become what they despise themselves?

Certainly, one has to wonder how Gould and her ilk came to their peculiar conclusions in the first instance. As Michael Luciano notes at the Daily Banter, pace Gay’s implication, the woman in the video, Shoshana Roberts, did walk through “white neighborhoods.”

If SoHo and Greenwich Village — two of the neighborhoods in the video — aren’t “white neighborhoods” for New York City, I don’t know what is. Roberts can also be seen near the Port Authority, which is neither a black nor a white neighborhood. It’s just a hellhole.

This episode, Luciano confesses, illustrates neatly why “liberals such as myself are feeling less at home on the Left these days.” “Some liberals,” he grumbles, “simply couldn’t let the video stand as a testament to the bullshit that women go through.” That the racial makeup of the harassers was not perfectly even, Luciano argues, yielded “an unacceptable narrative, even if that narrative is comprised entirely of subtext.” “To criticize this video because it may have captured an uncomfortable reality,” he concludes, “is to entirely miss the point, which is that street harassment is a problem no matter who’s engaging in it.”

This, however, seems to be too rubish a deduction for its critics. So reflexive has the search for complexity become that even the most straightforward of questions are now twisted and bent into more pleasingly distressing shapes. In her Brooklyn Magazine piece, Iverson argues that “it’s no coincidence that Roberts is presented in the video as being explicitly not responsible for the attacks on her because she’s not wearing ‘provocative’ clothes and she doesn’t respond to any of the verbal assaults thrown at her.” At first blush, one would have imagined this to be a positive thing. Does not the filmmaker deserve credit for having produced a piece of work that could not easily be dismissed?

Of course not. Per Iverson:

The clear implication here is that Roberts is just an innocent woman who doesn’t deserve these catcalls, thus suggesting that there are some women who, because of the way they dress or because of the way they respond, could be thought to be asking for it.

Well, as Monty Python’s exasperated Brian might say, what chance does that give us? Whatever they had done, it seems, the makers would have got it wrong. Had the video depicted a woman dressed less modestly, its creators would have been accused of suggesting that she “deserved” the harassment. And yet, for having taken precisely the opposite route, they are being accused of blaming other victims by implication. Somehow, the team that put together the piece is guilty of insulting victims that they didn’t even mention.#Ad#

Worse still, for having helped to draw attention to the problem, the cameraman has been told that he is culpable himself. “It is made clear,” Iverson suggests, “that Roberts has a boyfriend who is filming her because he too wants to protect her from . . . whom exactly? Oh, multitudes of anonymous black and Latino men? How gallant of him. How evocative of countless other examples of men wanting to protect the safety of white women.” Got that? If you make a video illustrating the indignity of catcalling, you are a misogynist with a hero complex who hopes to cast non-whites as the enemy, to insinuate that women wearing short skirts had it coming, and to contribute to a culture that privileges the chastity of white women above all else. When, as has been the case of late, men are told that it is their responsibility to ensure that the discourtesies to which Roberts was subjected are eradicated, can anyone blame them if they wonder what they can do?

Aura Bogado is a woman who could find devastating racial implications in the instruction manual for an electric screwdriver. But, quite by accident, she may here have hit upon a kernel of truth. “What does it mean for an org to create a video,” Bogado asks, “that casts men of color as main perpetrators of catcalling with the aim to criminalize them?” What, indeed. Over at the Federalist, Robert Tracinski records that the video’s backers are not solely interested in raising awareness. “According to Hollaback’s mission statement,” Tracinski writes,

the group is interested in modifying the law to punish offenders (and raising significant First Amendment concerns). Because comments such as those documented in their latest video, they explain, are the ‘most pervasive forms of gender-based violence and one of the least legislated against.’” Note that the activity they are describing as “violence” is speech. First Amendment concerns, indeed.

The case for a robust — almost impregnable — protection of freedom of speech stands on its own and applies to all people. It is as tyrannical an act to prosecute a rich man for his utterances as it is to target a poor one. Nevertheless, should Hollaback get its way and provoke the passage of an anti-cat-calling law, it would likely be the poor who would bear the brunt of its force. Such rules would be enforced capriciously, and those without power would find themselves hauled into court more than those with connections. As has been demonstrated by the new anti–“rape culture” rules that are sweeping the nation’s college campuses, there is always a price to illiberalism, and that price is often paid by a downtrodden and less powerful group. As kindly as possible, I would recommend that if anybody believes that the problem of unwanted male attention warrants the infringement of the First Amendment, they should re-examine their priorities.

And that, rather nicely, illustrates the problem here: that a piece that was intended to illustrate a singular issue has been hijacked by zealots and presented as being indicative of so much more besides. The law professor Glenn Harlan Reynolds joked this week that, through the right lens, the video could be regarded as “a racist production about white women not wanting attention from black and Latino men.” Alternatively, given the “low status” of many of those featured, he considered that we could regard the catcalls as “a way of striking back at privilege.” Indeed we could. There are a million possibilities. But, in interest of simplicity, and with the ever-beneficial Occam’s Razor in our hands, we might take the spot’s message for what it is: a reminder not to shout at women while they make their way to work. Bravo. 

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.


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