Consent, Nested

Note: This cerebral post is Part III in an ongoing series concerning affection and sexuality in public. Part I is [here], Part II is [here], and Part IV is [here].

I am heavily influenced by the concept of consent. The word is drenched in connotation and varies so wildly in its scope from context to context it might be useful to create some new terms just to differentiate. But on its face, it seems very simple. Oxford defines it this way: “Voluntary agreement to or acquiescence in what another proposes or desires; compliance, concurrence, permission.”

I was first introduced to this term, like many of us reared in the modern world, through permission slips from my school. My school would send me a permission slip home to give to my mother, which would represent her consent to allow me to be transported off-premises for the purpose of education. They were usually called field trips. Then came liability—waivers, insurance, authorizations. The word acquired legal meaning, and its ever-expanding use metastasized into a hulking lexical megalith. It expanded to sexuality when I discovered BDSM, and to relationships generally when it came to cuddling. It led down the road of photography as in the case of public photography, admittance to venues and collection of biometric data at work.

Then two days ago my dictionary app on my smartphone brought up an interesting term. I use Livio’s app, which is essentially the entire Wiktionary, so it’s only mostly reliable. The term was deontic logic. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, deontic logic is:

“…that branch of symbolic logic that has been the most concerned with the contribution that the following notions make to what follows from what: [is] permissible (permitted), [is] impermissible (forbidden, prohibited), [is] obligatory (duty, required), [is] omissible (non-obligatory), [is] optional, ought, must, [is] supererogatory (beyond the call of duty), [is] indifferent / significant, [is] the least one can do …

And it struck me that consent could be formalized as a concept through the study of logic. This realization empowered me to pursue a conclusion not only to share with you but also to search for the tools to live a life characterized by sound thinking and ethics.

In the first part of this series, I concluded with three questions. This post aims to answer the second question, which was this:

“To what extent does the issue of consent reach, if even visual displays in a public place can cause a social or moral furor? Put another way, in what sense is public space public if all private mores and expectations are to be protected; is Western individualism not at fault for sacralizing the private experience at the expense of public experience?

I am determined to set the limits and to establish a sound, ethical basis for behavior in public—even if that basis applies only to myself, the question of whether my conduct is ethical nags at me on a daily basis.

I asked my companion a series of questions a few moons ago. I asked her, and I’m paraphrasing, if the things we see in public are subject to the consideration of consent. For example, if I see a piece of political propaganda, and I find it distasteful, is its placement in a public place a violation of my consent? After all, I did not agree with its content. If a more conservative religious person eyes a young lady in perhaps too-risqué garb, has the young lady violated someone’s consent?

Most parents agree that it’s immoral for children to be exposed to sexually explicit material, and sometimes that ethic spills into the public place. Many times I’ve overheard conversations about someone’s outfit being outrageous, and I’ve seen moms use their hands to shield their child’s eyes. What is the basis for their outrage, however?


My companion, as we exited the double doors of the local post office, seemed to take contrary posture. Essentially, she suggests it isn’t a violation of consent to be subjected to unwanted visual information. Intuitively, I agree. But when I attempt to provide a basis, the floor opens up underneath me and begins to swallow. And as I look down in terror, I notice someone has spray painted a phallus on the sidewalk and I am jolted back to my original question.

Because even if I created a highly ordered diagram to explain the formal dependencies inherent in each choice, and the constellation of cultural, social and moral expectations presented by each person present, I would need to make a new one with each social development.  Enter Stage Hand A. Crotchety old man exits Right. What now? In addition to the impossibility of pleasing everyone, we have the unachievable task of never being offensive. I closed my eye and the fidgety young man suspiciously wonders if I’m in the Illuminati and I look at the camera in the corner of the room and he’s suddenly convinced I’m The Enemy. I set my legs apart to relax and a woman is convinced I’m sexually dominating her by manspreading. I cough and my fingers weren’t fully closed, now I’m a biological weapon and the woman with her snot-nosed kid in the lobby inches away surreptitiously. Is there an objective standard? Does the arena one finds oneself in dictate what is acceptable? For example, is there an objective difference between my living room and the dental lobby? Do the rules shift by locale?

It would be simple to take the approach of my peers and use simplistic terminology and let it go. I could say “that’s personal space,” or “that’s public space,” and intuit a variety of rules. But more often than not, these two spaces collide in such a way that there can be no certainty about what is what. Enter: studio apartment where the kitchen is conjoined to the bedroom. Enter: the sinks in the public restroom with no locks. Enter: the meadow in my backyard which is directly neighboring national forest. I could say “that’s inappropriate,” or “that’s appropriate,” and intuit a different set of rules. Until I find myself in room with a child and adult at the same time. The perpetually shifting definitions leave a person’s head spinning as they attempt to approximate what to do and to remain circumstantially aware enough to avoid indecency.

This isn’t a new problem. You have the ancient art of etiquette spanning over five thousand years by various names, from ritualized codes of honor, to legally codified systems of behavior, to the subtextual behemoth the namesake derives from pioneered by the French. How, when, where and why one behaves—if one behaves, even—has been unsuccessfully hunted by polite persons, elitist snobs and amateur ethicists for all of recorded time it seems.

I for one cannot accept the generalizations of my peers and forebears. Whether something is appropriate is itself something one might write a lengthy book about, as is the exact definition of personal space. And if it cannot be concretely stated in a few words why or whether a situation is appropriate, and if it cannot be universally agreed upon whether a space is public, I see no reason to jump to a conclusion in either case. The cultural expectation I find myself subjected to is to pick a side, stick to it and enforce it. At no time is it encouraged that I ruminate whatsoever. But I must. I must break party in this matter.

It’s been about a solid week since I last wrote, and that week has consisted of continuous mental effort toward understanding. This hasn’t been an easy piece to write. Here is my considered opinion about appropriateness:

Appropriateness is an intrinsic judgment emanating from the self; when it is applied extrinsically, it takes the form of arbitrary social contracts which are, if at all, enforced by mob physics; on occasion these extrinsic manifestations, though arbitrary in their origins, condense in the form of mores and taboos which are violently defended.

This hierarchical view is useful: Appropriateness begins with the judgment of one, is used to form a union between disparate adherents of the same judgment, and finally entrenched with the development of a distinct culture. In this view, appropriateness can only be apprehended by first understanding the culture in which one operates, lending great credence to the adage to do in Rome what the Romans do. Appropriateness then shifts according not to the individual but according to the hive, and the individual, no matter how well he conducts himself according to his own personal judgments of appropriateness, may find himself continuously condemned by the hive. Disorder then follows from the assertion of a counter-cultural judgment, whether it is asserted as a subversive token or modestly and privately for the sake of the individual conscience.

If this is true, it then follows that all behaviors which are supported by or neutral to the prevailing culture will be tolerated even if an individual judges them to be morally heinous and all behaviors which aren’t supported or are condemned by the prevailing culture, even if the individual judges them to be righteous, will be greeted with immediate and animated intolerance.

origin of expectation

But this system of thought bottoms out at the third level. See fig. 1 and follow me: once there is the creation of an entrenched culture there is no further development for that culture. Instead of expanding vertically, a culture, once entrenched, can only expand horizontally. Cultures develop by consuming other cultures, absorbing them and adopting them very much like a cancer cell. While they increase in apparent size, they never fundamentally evolve: a culture never undergoes any form of systemic transformation beyond itself. The way an individual becomes a handful of like-minded persons, or the way a handful of like-minded persons become a society. And that is what this chart demonstrates: it follows the evolution of an individual into a society.

It is my considered opinion, therefore, that all spaces are private spaces, and they belong to the dominant culture which immediately, physically occupies them. The concept of the public space is a mythical ideal which cannot possibly overmaster the domination of the society which inhabits the aforementioned space. And inasmuch as all spaces are private, the prevailing culture arbitrarily decides what is fit for consumption and what isn’t. The ethereal notions of what Should Be and what Shouldn’t Be fall flat on their faces when privately held by an individual, but topple nations and continents when entrenched as the ideals of a society. The woman shields her child’s eyes because no one else will. She fumes about that scantily clad girl because she is powerless to act. Any act would clash violently against the dominating society around her. She is, therefore, a stranger in a strange land; she is a bygone Etruscan freshly dropped out of a time machine pissing on the walls of Rome.

In part one of this series, I recounted an anecdote concerning a man who all-but-violently dissented against my display of affection at my school. His privately held judgment, failing to remain intrinsic, manifested itself in the form of an external behavior; the behavior failed to find the agreement of the dominating society in which he expressed it, and was, therefore, powerless to affect my behavior. His belief in the supremacy of the individual over the group was made null in its effect because he never took into account the plain fact that even the most ribald of public affection is considered par for the course at a local community college. The expectations of the society he was a participant in, witting or unwitting, trumped his private views and polarization between his own judgments and the judgments of others became concrete. Perhaps the man will attempt to change the society in which he finds himself and pursue an evolution to the second stage of growth, finding like-minded peers also belonging to the society of the college.

Or, more likely than not, his judgments will fade into obscurity and be consumed by the cancer cell of the mob as it molds every bordering ideology after itself.


During the composition of this post, I listened to [Deafheaven’s] [Sunbather]. Classified by critics as a fusion of black metal and post-rock, and featuring heavy shoegaze elements, it stymies the emotions and soothes them, simultaneously.

This is the second time I’ve visited this work, but the first time I’ve listened to it all the way through. Once you stifle the inner voice which attempts to explain, justify or apprehend the music, you just may find yourself enraptured. Take a listen, if you dare. It wasn’t my favorite record, but I enjoyed it thoroughly.




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