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Hegel Walks Into A Bar…

James V. Mead overhears Hegel mansplaining #MeToo.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel walks into a bar in Manhattan. Three women see him and come over to sit around him. Each one introduces herself.

“I’m a woman from the past,” says the first.

“I’m a woman from the present,” says the second.

The third says, “I’m from the future.”

Hegel cannot believe his good fortune. Who would expect a living thought experiment would show up at his local watering hole? “Ladies,” he says, “I suggest we have some philosophical fun in this happy situation.” He pauses to sip his Napoleon brandy. “Can we work through a problem I’ve wondered about all day? I promise you free drinks – all the spirits you want!”

“Phenomenal!” chorus the women.

Hegel in bar
Background bar image © Dennis Brekke 2010

Hegel continues, “I’ve been thinking about the concept of sexual harassment. Will you help me work through this problem?” They look at each other askance, then nod. Hegel smiles and says, “I’ll set the scene. Say you walk into your CEO’s office, and he makes a proposition to you, to gratify his animal urges. A typical modern tawdry scene, if we are to believe what we read in newspapers. What does a woman do in this situation?”

The woman from the past sips her gin fizz and replies, “This sounds typical of the workplace life the women of my era had to deal with… It’s certainly worse than the wolf whistles and leers I frequently get in the street, but about the same as being grabbed in an unwanted embrace at the company party. Men are set in their ways, and see little wrong in what they do. Girls just have to look out for themselves. What would I do in this situation? I would smile to make the fool think that I think his outrageous behavior’s a joke. Then I would recall that I have an urgent appointment elsewhere, and exit as gracefully as I can.”

He asks, “Would you tell anyone what had happened?”

“What good would that do? Who would I tell? The boss has all the power, and us women have none. I don’t want to be fired, I need the job, and I want to pursue my career. Sometimes I get angry, Georg, because this sort of man has created my identity at work: I am a sex object, degraded, and unappreciated as an individual. Do these apes really think I enjoy all this kind of unwanted attention? But I can’t see things changing any time soon.”

“I feel terrible for your situation, lady from the past. You’ve given a prime example of my idea of autonomous negation, or what is notoriously known as negating negating. The idea confused many of my philosophical pals, as well as confounding grammarians with the double negative. They tell me that two negatives make a positive. But there is definitely no positive with those negating negatives in your story.”

The women smile at him politely, but he sees the confusion in their eyes. “Can I explain what I mean? Men in the past held creepy beliefs and inclinations about women in the workplace. But as well as the social mores, the laws at the time conflicted with how the women who have to fend off these unwanted behaviors feel. That is the first negative. Men in the past often failed to acknowledge that their behavior was wrong – they told each other there was nothing wrong with what they were doing. But sexual harassment was wrong in the past, is wrong in the present, and will be wrong in the future. And it’s curious that even in the testosterone-dominated past, if that CEO walked out in the street and propositioned a passerby, he would be arrested. The same CEO would also be horrified and angry if someone propositioned his wife in this way. This contradiction in men’s beliefs is the second negative. So, negating negating.”

Hegel has a quick chuckle to himself at his word-play.

Turning now to the woman from the present, he asks, “What would you do?”

She begins, “This is a clear example of what the #MeToo movement is all about. I would start by telling the CEO that he’s way out of line. He is using his position of power to try to extort sexual favors. The guy’s a total jerk. I don’t care if I lose my job. I’ll find another – and I’ll get a big settlement in court when my lawyer sues him and his company for sexual harassment in a hostile workplace.”

“Would you like another vodka? You certainly deserve one.”

“I do, don’t I?” She watches as the bartender pours the drink. “It’s a struggle against something I see as wrong,” she continues. “I claim my universal right to be treated equally. My male colleagues have to recognize me as a person. I contribute to the company in more ways than a good pair of legs. I feel I can claim what is right; and the law is finally beginning to back me up!”

Hegel gently asks, “Do you worry there’s still a contradiction?”

“I have a vague feeling of a potential clash between universal and individual rights, if that’s what you mean. We seem to be moving to gender-free workplaces, which on the one hand seems good for universal human rights; but on the other hand, this move might clash with my individual rights as a woman. There are rights I would want to claim as a woman that seem important, but which could be overlooked in a gender-free environment.”

“Could you give us an example?” Hegel rattles the ice around his brandy balloon.

“For example, my rights around pregnancy, concerning paid leave, holding my position, and not being asked to perform tasks like heavy lifting when pregnant.”

“A good point! In fact, I and several other philosophers, share your concern about how universal rights can sometimes seem at odds with individual or group rights –”

The woman from the future interrupts: “I’m confused. This all sounds like something out of the Stone Age. Even if the CEO in your parable didn’t actually club the woman and drag her to his cave, it’s pretty darn close. Because in my time the CEO gender ratio is fifty-fifty, the situation may be a little different.” She absently stirs her synthetic, iridescent cocktail. “The chance of harassment in my workplace is virtually zero. The few Neanderthals – male, female, or other – who might proposition someone, would soon be removed, or not even be hired. They’d be a real liability to the company – a financial and public relations disaster. If that happened to me, I would immediately disable the offender with a Vulcan death-grip. I’m pretty sure that is in line with workplace legislation, too. I’m horrified at what I hear from you two. My work identity as an equal is overwhelmingly supported by society, the law, and the workplace community. Not everything is perfect, admittedly: people still have problems with unequal salaries, despite having the same responsibilities. But we seem to have moved on from many of the contradictions that my sisters past and present face. We women of the future face a new contradiction: we need to be both equal and different. The workplace will have to recognize that our gender means we have different needs to our male colleagues – until we start to have babies in mechanical uteri.” She laughs acidly.

Looking around at all three of them, Hegel says, “Thank you all for your insights, ladies. I’m so happy that you’ve fully confirmed my conviction that concepts change over time. Moral truth is a process, dontcha think?” But he does have a tiny doubt in the back of his mind, which he now brings to the front: “Let us have another round of drinks, bartender, as I confess to these ladies something I think I was wrong about!” he calls over to the steward. “Two hundred years ago I wrote about Spirit, but you must forgive me that I let people think that Spirit was God. Spirit – Geist in German – can mean ghost, spirit, or the Spirit of God. I have seen that that caused a lot of scholars to expend a lot of time explaining what I meant! I was always a bit vague on the details, on purpose. You may know that some people in Berlin charged me with atheism.” There is a slight hint of a smile on Hegel’s face. “Spirit is not God in any standard sense- at least some of my readers realised that. I spent a lot of time reading what Adam Smith wrote about an invisible hand in markets. My Geist is like an invisible hand in history. Now, two hundred years later, you have Chaos Theory and the ability through simulations to show how tiny actions iterated thousands of time, using only probabilities, creates order from chaos. Beautiful leaf patterns, tree shapes, complex river systems and coastlines – the list of beauty from chaos is neverending in our world. Similarly, my theory says that our world strives toward the absolute while producing beauty and evil along the way. That’s what’s happening everywhere – including how gender plays out in the workplace… Indeed, you three ladies demonstrate something that awful man Schopenhauer says about sex and power… Terribly spiteful man, by the way. Did you know he was at the same university as me and used to time his lectures to coincide with mine? I never understood why he hated me so much; but I was part of a large group of people he despised… Anyway, he would say sex often has nothing to do with love and happiness. It is an exertion of, as he would say, ‘Will’, through sex. Think of Will as an invisible force.”

The woman from the past can’t resist a giggle: “I frequently felt that invisible force, Georg.”

“But,” continues Hegel, “the lady from the present tells us of a shift in the power struggle as women start to assert their own power. Past and present workplaces involve different types of confrontation, while the future lady shows us that people in her time can rarely wield their power for sex in the workplace. The tables are turning as women exercise their own Will.”

“Thank you, Georg, it’s been a most enlightening discussion,” the woman from the future says kindly. The other women stand with her. They leave the bar, seeming to disappear as they walk through the door.

Hegel spends the rest of the evening alone, drinking lager.

© James V. Mead 2020

Jim Mead is a researcher, educator and technologist who likes stories that illustrate life’s philosophical questions.

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