THE MONKEY THAT CAN TALK, THE LEANING ELEPHANT AND THE LINK IN THE CHAIN

Woke up this morning (actually, I didn’t get much sleep last night so maybe I didn’t wake at all) and from then on the focus was on a talk I was due to give to a group of American undergraduate students in Amsterdam. As I served myself scrambled eggs from the buffet in the hotel restaurant I dealt with a different kind of scrambled. Yesterday I started reading The Righteous Mind  by Jonathan Haidt (Penguin 2012). The indications are that it will help me to unscramble the political-moral tensions in the prostitution debate. Less helpful was the fact that I could feel it leaking in an undigested and uninvited way into the talk that I’d prepared. A bigger problem, however, was making sure that I got to the venue on time. And should I wear a suit or jeans? I was also puzzling over why I was there at all.

I mean, why would students who are studying prostitution (for a whole semester) want to pose questions to a client (a hundred clients, maybe, but why one)? Seriously, what could they possibly gain? At best it’s just one perspective (one involving a lot of self editing, and one delivered – in this instance – from the position of white wealthy male privilege). What could that be worth, even on a good day? I wondered if maybe the questions weren’t the point. Maybe hearing the monkey talk was the point.

Maybe Haidt can offer up a few clues. His proposition is that people reach moral judgments almost instinctively. They then look for evidence to back up the moral position. They tend to be selective when gathering the evidence. If it fits they take it, if it doesn’t fit they reject it or ignore it. Obviously, some people set out with ‘an open mind’ or are ‘prepared to be persuaded’. However, Haidt would say (I think) that’s actually a tall order. Most of us aren’t capable of that when it comes to moral issues; it would be like trying to ignore the size of one’s feet when buying shoes. It’s not a question of intellect. Maybe this was an exercise in seeing how a client matched up to the liberal/conservative moral perspective on the prostitution issue. Whatever – I was committed to telling my story. It’s a simple tale. I explained how I came to visit prostitutes in the first place and why I continue to visit (it’s a story which I rehearse briefly in The Amsterdam Diaries – (that’s the UK link but it’s also available on Amazon throughout the world, jus’ sayin’). I also explained that I have serious reservations about the victim narrative. It took nearly an hour. I told them that I wasn’t there to persuade them of anything.

But I probably was.

At one point I was asked if the girls (in the windows) ever had orgasms. Yes, most definitely. I told a story about it, and worked in a few additional insights on the way. Later in the day, while reading Haidt, I discovered what a large part the brain chemical Oxytocin plays in the process. Next time I do this talk, Oxytocin is going to get a big mention.

Haidt also provided a valuable service in the moment. I went into this talk armed with some morality triggers; it’s about understanding one’s audience (not judging them). The triggers seem to work. He talks about the elephant that drives our moral responses (it’s pretty emotional). He argues that when it comes to morality we are 90% lumbering elephant and 10% rational mind. He likens the rational mind to ‘the rider on the elephant’ who is responding to the way that the elephant moves rather than controlling the elephant (the rider doesn’t try to explain stuff to the  elephant it, it tries to justify what the elephant is thinking). Certain triggers make the elephant lean one way or another. At one point, I deliberately lobbed in something that might spook the elephant. I watched the elephant lurch and lean.

As usual, I had a good time. The jokes worked (at least, people laughed when they were supposed to). Memo to self: more jokes! However, as usual, there was something missing. I never got to talk to the students about what they have learnt, how their perceptions have changed or been reinforced and (very important) where they actually stand on this issue. When I arrived I walked straight into a bunch of them as they gathered in the hotel lobby. I talked to one of them. I asked what the group had done during the week. It sounded like they had been exposed to quite a few negative views about prostitution. I wondered how that had played out in their perceptions. At one point during the talk one of the girls made the comment that they only had my word for what I was telling them. The implication was that it would be better if they could talk to some of these girls and get their take on my relationship with them. Good point. I agree. But it ain’t like that. On a couple of occasions I’ve told some of the girls that I would be talking to students and would love to take them along so that they could answer questions: “Oh, I couldn’t do that. I’m much too shy.” Or are they? Are they just saying that? Answers on a postcard (email)! I have wondered why this visit hasn’t been turned into a research opportunity, though. For example, all the students could descend on the RLD and simultaneously approach one window each: “Look, I’m a student doing research. Could I come in and talk to you for twenty minutes if I paid you €50 (2 girls offering €100 would probably be a bigger incentive)? Or they could take up 50 positions around the RLD and from, say, 9.00 pm watch the activity (Johns/punters coming and going) around a particular window for a fixed period. What is the frequency of windows visits across the district? Or they could test the following proposition: there are pimps lurking in the shadows on the periphery and on the bridges. There could be a different research angle each visit.

I think that maybe the girl who made the ‘we only have your word for it’ comment was saying something like, “You are giving us an alternative view, and if we could verify it, it might change the way we are looking at this.” That would be nice. As long as that view starts to align with my own (LOL). Which is what? That we (the public) are exposed to a steady stream of negative propaganda in the form of misinformation in order to induce moral panic and justify punitive legislation which is ideologically driven rather than the outcome of objective analysis and pragmatic problem solving, that’s what. What I think would be fun is to give a lecture along those lines for an hour, followed by questions. Then come back a few days later and do the ‘I am a client’ lecture and see how they deal with the juxtaposition. At the moment I am scrambling the two messages; however, it doesn’t amount to lousy communication. I felt that Ezra’s song made a good header for this piece but I chose it for the content rather than the title (definitely not the title).

What I can say is that like the other student audiences I’ve addressed this one was good to work with. They were courteous, interested and thoughtful, and they were generous in their responses. And they had a lot of good questions. You can’t ask for more than that. Can you?

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