On this week’s edition of Harmontown, Dan talked about an inappropriate interaction he had with a young female writer when he ran Community for NBC. The story is sad, with Dan ending up so in his own head over it that he loses the show, hurts people, and ends a relationship of his own. He told the story as a way of trying to be a better person about all of it, and I applaud that.
It left me thinking, though, because he brought up two things that I’ve often commented on in “safe” circles of discussion but haven’t talked as much about in public spaces because while I’m not scared of the topics, as such, they do create some weird and sometimes uncomfortable situations.
In Dan’s case, they swirled together in a dangerous cocktail. But here are the two concepts that I found interesting/that I’ve spoke to people about before.
The first is something I think is universal, but I think because of American society and the patriarchy as it exists, I think it’s much more dangerous and destructive when it happens as a male looking at a female. But I think women do it, too (someone correct me, please, if I’m wrong). Here’s the “thing:” when we’re infatuated with someone, they become special and exceptional in our world, so they occupy a special place in our internal narrative. If we aren’t careful, this can lead to us operating in ways that are unfair and outright discriminatory/predatory. But we want love stories. We want to have a crush on someone and that person, like in the movies, be destined to end up with us. And when that happens, to one degree or another reality goes out the window. In what I’m going to call a “safe” case of this, there’s someone like my first crush– we’ll call her Mary– and the way that all through junior high and my freshman year of high school I idealized how she reacted to things and made her far more grand than she actually was. It didn’t do any harm to her, because I wasn’t the sort of person who would behave in any outward facing way (I was sooooo introverted). I eventually did ask her out, via a series of clever notes in her locker, and when she politely brushed me off, I accepted it. But the time before actually engaging in a paper-bound conversation with her, my mental image of her was not correct. And my sense of how things might end was drastically incorrect to the point of absolute fantasy. I played no real role in her world at all, but in my mind there was a narrative where we ended up close.
I think sometimes that has horrifying impacts on people. Dan seems to have had a problem with that.
But the deeper, more important issue is the idea of attraction across levels of power. I think I might have mentioned this once here on the blog, but when I was in my 20s and working at IU, I had a talk with a professor where we both ended up mutually disgusted with each other. He insisted to me that one cannot feel attraction to a student (and he claimed he never had, which I know for a fact is not true because he was, at one point, married to someone who was once his student). I insisted something far more complex. At the age of 23, in some cases on that campus teaching people who were my peers or were slightly older (but only 5 years at max older than the undergrads), I insisted that it wasn’t abnormal, or even unhealthy, to recognize an attraction to a student. What I insisted upon was that if I were to feel such an impulse, I needed to immediately gather myself and put it in context so that I would realize it was not something I could– or rather should– act upon.
This older professor believed it was morally wrong to feel attraction to a student. I understand that mindset, but I also think that “morality” and “humanity” don’t always go hand-in-hand. This was an argument I used to have with my Bible study friends in high school. They were big on decrying people who “covet,” but one of the things I often tried to convince them of is this– people WILL covet things. That’s what human nature does to us. I like to think I’m not particularly selfish or sociopathic, but I still see things I wish I had (cars, tech, toys… rarely, but even still to this day, people).
My argument back to that older professor– and to my friends then, to anyone now who might ask– is that the actual “morality” is being realistic about things. Let me give an example. There’s someone in Richmond, where I live, who has a tricked out electric blue Camaro. It’s… a gorgeous car. On my most base, ID driven level, I covet that car. There is no part of me, however, that has even on a whim dreamed of a way to steal the car from the guy. I understand that I can feel an impulse and that it means I’m human. I don’t have to act on it. I’m not a slave to my emotions.
So I opened Pandora’s Box here by mentioning the discussion with that professor. I know that if I don’t answer the un-asked question of “so did you ever feel that way about a student?” I’m copping out. So, here goes.
I never created any sort of fantasy scenario wherein a student was meant to be with me. That never even crossed my mind. I taught one student when I was at IU that I would have had a crush on had she not been my student, but the second I felt anything, I went and had a long talk with a different teaching mentor than the one I had the debate I mentioned above with. That mentor reaffirmed my belief that I could be professional and not let any sort of feelings impact me, and he also reminded me that since we were talking about a non-traditional student who was slightly older than me it didn’t seem creepy or worrysome, that I wasn’t a freak or a pedophile or anything. He also pointed out to me that if I were still at all interested in some sort of social relationship with this woman after my class was over, there was no reason I couldn’t approach her then. It turned out to be a very fleeting thing. I realized a few weeks into the class that the student had simply reminded me of someone I knew in high school, and that broke the weird fluttery feeling. It did cause me to crash-and-burn trying to reconnect with that girl from high school, but that was just a Phill embarrassment and had no impact on power dynamics and gender at the university. That was just a dating fail.
My life was a little weird in relation to this topic, though, as when I started teaching, I was a second-semester junior working in a professional experience program. So during my second year teaching, I was still an undergraduate, still taking classes in the student body where I taught (though I never had class with a student I was teaching). I went on a few dates with undergraduate students from the university while I was still a student, too. None of them were in my classes (well, the classes I taught– one was taking an upper-level poli sci class I was enrolled in). None of that went anywhere, though. Just casual hanging-out. Normal college student stuff, just with me also being an adjunct.
In graduate school at Miami, I felt too different from the undergrad students to connect with them in any sort of social way. I felt like I was their weird poverty-stricken uncle. I had one extremely pixie cute undergrad female student who I think had a crush on me, somehow (not sure how), but I didn’t feel anything but flattery.
At Michigan State, I felt a very clear division between me and my student, but I also met Julie after being there only a few months, and I’m not one to stray. The thought actually never crossed my mind. I did have a super-awkward moment where a student unzipped her jacket and wasn’t wearing a shirt during my office hours, but I want to think the student just forgot, as she seemed pretty embarrassed AND there was a female grad student in the room, too. That’d be the closest I came, though.
I’m too old now. It would feel legitimately weird to me if I felt attracted to an undergrad. They’re a lifetime younger than me. I get that people find love in relationships like that, but I can’t even imagine it. And not being able to imagine it amounting to anything sort of short circuits anything else for me. I’m maybe weird like that. I don’t know.
Still, I reserve to this day the internal right to allow myself to say “wait, I feel something weird about this person” when meeting a new student. I’m glad that it doesn’t happen, but I realize that it could. I also realize that– and argue with me if you wish, world– it’s okay for something like that to happen. I mean when I watch a movie and I’m attracted to an actress, it’s not something I’m going to act on in any way. It’s human nature; in fact it’s probably why that actress was cast for the role. And from watching TV and movies with my wife, I know women do that, too. Observing that one is attracted to someone for whatever reason doesn’t mean anything sinister. It’s the acting on it that would be bad.
This is all a long-f0rm version of me getting to a simple statement of my own personal philosophy that I wish more people would share. We are weird about attraction and urges and sex and fantasy here in America. And we’re seeing hideous cases of sexual assault coming out of the woodwork. I think it is very possible that we’d see less of these horrible cases if we were more up-front about things and talked to young people in realistic ways about their feelings and urges and all of that. I know that even mentioning this starts to make people uncomfortable, but if we tell young children that they might feel a certain way about other people and that it’s okay to feel that way, then we explain to them what the other person needs to do in order to consent to acting in any way on those feelings, we might see less young people raping other young people. We don’t talk enough about how to deal with things like lust, which we just label as dark and evil and inappropriate. There’s nothing wrong with feeling lust; it happens. But if we’d talk to people about how to handle it in a productive way, we might stop people from bottling it all up and then doing something truly awful.
It’s okay to feel. It’s not okay to put your feelings on someone else. But in a society that values silence on these topics, we create these fantasy narratives that move from dreaming of a life together to visualizing things that are more graphic. Some people, then, act on those visualizations. And that’s wrong– I’d never defend it. But maybe not so many people would act on those impulses if we explained to people that it’s not freakish to feel a deep attraction to another person, and if instead of acting like we can’t discuss it we helped people to cope with the idea that other people aren’t in the world as props in their life. Imagine how it would feel to live in a society where we could talk about the things we all lock away in our head. Imagine how much healthier we could feel.
I feel awful for the young writer Dan Harmon talked about. But I feel bad for Dan, too. Not as bad. But bad. Because as a society, we failed both of those people miserably. We need to do better.