The price tag for decades of gender warfare is usually expressed in general terms -- for example, through data-filled studies that reflect how "boys" are slighted in education. The ordeal of Michael Wright -- a student at Oklahoma University at Normal -- captures the human factor. And it leads me to a question: What does the devil look like?
On a recent Thursday, two police officers appeared at Michael's house, apparently to investigate his stalking of a female OU student. Stalking is a serious crime, which is defined as "the willful, malicious and repeated following and harassing of another person." It can place a young man on a registry of sex offenders that could haunt his future and limit his options in life. Indeed, Oklahoma is a state in which convicted sex offenders must register his/her address, which is made available to the public. No wonder Michael suffered "a great deal of nerve-wracking anxiety" before being exonerated.
What mistake did Michael make?
On Saturday, Sept. 27, he found the OU ID card of a female student. Looking up her number and e-ddress in the OU online directory, he dialed the no-longer-valid number then sent an e-mail:
"I found your ID card today on a photocopy machine at the AVA copy center. I picked it up to return to you, since you might not have remembered where you left it. I usually go to the campus every day and often go to the library or the computer lab in the physical science building. I get a cup of coffee every morning from the yogurt stand in the union. You can e-mail me or call me to arrange for me to return it to you."
Not hearing anything by Monday, he simply gave the card to an OUPD officer and e-mailed her: "You haven't replied to my e-mail from Saturday so I gave your ID card to an OUPD officer I saw in the main library." (A police officer investigating Michael said the card had not been returned, which was later revealed to be an OU oversight.)
The female student bypassed the university and went straight to the local police with the "allegation" that Michael "had looked up her number" -- albeit in an open directory. The police were forced by law and policy to investigate. Michael was forced to endure a weeklong ordeal before the bureaucracy offered him an apology ... or as close to it as bureaucracy ever comes.
The incident is not a breakdown in "the system." According to Michael, the police exercised both common sense and common decency, with one detective eventually thanking him for "making the extra effort to protect the members of our community" by returning lost property.
The incident reflects how paranoid our culture has become after decades of political correctness that defines and divides us into categories eternally at war: female against male, whites against minorities, heterosexual against gay.
I was once asked to describe the devil. (I interpreted the question to be about the general nature of evil in man rather than about religion.)
I replied: If the devil is the living flesh of evil, then here is who I think he is. Far from appearing as a hideous demon, he is the average-looking person who walks into a room and shakes your hand with a smile. By the time he leaves, the standards of decency of everyone within that room have been lowered ever so slightly.
Perhaps he offers general statistics on divorce or child abuse to convince you to suspect your husband of infidelity or your neighbor of molestation. No evidence of specific wrongdoing is offered, of course. But since such "crimes" do occur, you are advised to be vigilantly on guard against them in your personal life. And so, you begin to view your spouse and neighbors with a bit more suspicion, a little less trust and with the tendency to interpret every action as possible evidence of wrongdoing. The very possibility of an offense is taken as evidence of its presence.
Perhaps he spins a political theory that inches you toward viewing people, not as individuals to be judged on the basis of their merits, but as members of a class. And so, your co-worker is no longer an individual; he becomes "black" or "male" or "gay" and his actions are interpreted according to his category.
Slowly, you come to view the world through the eyes of the devil. People are guilty until proven innocent. Acts of kindness and common decency are meticulously dissected for hidden motives and agendas. People are not individuals but categories. Those closest to you -- family, friends and neighbors -- do not receive the benefit of the doubt; they receive the "benefit" of your suspicion.
With no religious implication, I say: a devil is at large. He tells us that acts of kindness and common decency do not exist; the worst possible interpretation should be placed on acts that appear to embody those values. Individuals do not exist; only categories.
In real PC terms, this means that all men should be objects of suspicion. A man, such as Michael, should be subject to a criminal investigation that could damage the rest of his life for trying to return a lost ID card.
I hope he has not learned the devil's lesson. I hope the next time he can help another human being, he chooses to be a Good Samaritan. Perhaps the next beneficiary will say "thank you" rather than dialing the police.
Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.