Monday, April 03, 2017

Alternatives to the Pence Principle

by Michael Dorf

Since the (re)revelation that Vice President Mike Pence does not dine alone with women not his wife or attend parties where alcohol is served without his wife, most of the critical attention paid to this story (such as this Vox piece) has focused on the resulting (arguably illegal) denial to women of equal opportunities for career advancement, with a smattering of essays (such as this Atlantic piece) slotting the furor itself into a narrative of disconnection between religious conservative America and secular liberal America. Here I'll add a couple of observations about the phenomenon itself and then offer a thought about how someone with Pence's concerns might address them in ways that do not adversely affect women.

I'll begin by noting that while I accept at face value the assertions that the Pence practice is more common among Evangelical Christian men than among married men more generally (to say nothing of married women), there is something at least a little bit odd about that. As between a devout married man who believes that the punishment for adultery (absent successful repentance) is eternal damnation in hell, and a non-religious married man with no particular worries about punishment in the afterlife, I would have thought that the latter would be much more tempted to commit adultery--and thus would need to take more precautions--than the former. (I acknowledge that there is some movement against hell among liberal Evangelicals. It's hardly universal.)

But wait, you say. The religious married man is more committed to avoiding the sin of adultery. That's fair enough, but there is no reason to think that the spouse of a person who commits adultery will be more forgiving if she is not religious than if she is religious. Indeed, insofar as the devout tend to look less favorably on divorce, it would seem that a non-religious man has more to worry about in the here and now in the event he is apprehended in a tryst than does a religious man.

Meanwhile, having said that, I have encountered a few men (though no women) in my professional life who engage in Pence-like precautions but for a wholly different reason. It's not that they fear being tempted into sin; rather, they fear that they will be falsely accused of having a sexual relationship--either by the woman in question or by someone who claims to see something that was not in fact taking place. One man I know will not meet with a woman alone in his office unless the door is open. Another, when traveling on business, insists that any woman traveling in the same party stay in a separate hotel. Not just a separate room--which is of course expected generally--but an entirely separate hotel.

The precautions I have just described strike me as somewhat paranoid but they are essentially innocuous, especially because they can be applied equally to men and women. There's no real downside to leaving the office door open for meetings with men as well as women. And if there is a downside--the inability to have a confidential conversation, say--then that inability should be distributed equally. Likewise for the hotel rule.

And that brings us to Pence. Suppose that for whatever reason, a powerful man wants to observe Pence's rule. It is easy enough, I suppose, to generalize it in gender-neutral fashion. The no-parties-with-alcohol-without-his-wife rule is already gender neutral. (Sure, Pence's wife is a woman, but that's not the sex-based line we care about.) The other rule can easily be changed to: Never eat in a party of exactly two people; eat by yourself; or eat in a group of three or more.

That is a stupid rule, of course, and one that will lead to all sorts of pointless hair splitting. If you're traveling on business with a co-worker, does it count as eating a meal in a forbidden duo if you eat on an airplane while sitting next to each other? Or does the third passenger in the row make that an acceptable trio? What if the third passenger is asleep and thus skips the meal? But the important point to keep in mind is that the stupidity results from the rule itself, not its generalization into gender-neutral form.

Bottom Line: If you're going to abide by peculiar rules of conduct that have an adverse impact on people in your workplace, you have some obligation to ensure that these rules do not disadvantage anyone based on sex (or any other illicit grounds).


Shag from Brookline said...

Query: Might the "Pence Rule" potentially lead to or foster a menage a trois?

Vice President Pence's Rule is in contrast with President Trump's documented vices. (Cite: Access Hollywood Tapes.) Do we have any idea when the "Pence Rule" was first imposed by the VP? Was it from the "git-go" of marriage or at some later date. Of course there was no need of a "Pence Rule" with Adam and Eve. But was the "Pence Rule" the product of Original Sin? For some reason thoughts of presidential candidate Jimmy Carter come to mind.

Joe said...

An afterlife with penalties for wrongdoing was and continues to be seen as many as an important concept since it is a way to restrain conduct. But, it is of limited value, even if you believe in it. Those who believe in the act of confession cleansing you of your sins could be even less restrained. Anyway, human nature and all exists here.

I wonder if there were RFRA claims made regarding having the right (if I may use that term) to not deny alone with a female colleague because of your religious beliefs, even if it led to some negative results to the other person. I realize the basic idea of religious accommodations is to guard against harm to third parties like this, but claims are being made (some accepted) that do just that in some way.

Joe said...

"deny alone" (dine alone) is an amusing typo

David Ricardo said...

Am I the only one that observes that Mr. Pence slavishly serves a man who has "dined alone" in the broadest possible definition of that phrase with many women while he was married and it doesn't seem to bother him? Of course this is explainable when one understands that gaining political power is supreme above all else, including deeply held religious beliefs which upon testing in this case turn out not to be too deeply held.

Also fake news reports that if he is alone at breakfast and having pancakes Mr. Pence will not even allow Mrs. Butterworth on the table with him. (not original with me)

Shag from Brookline said...

When Boston's Locke-Ober's went "co-ed" I frequently would lunch at its bar avoiding the "Pence Rule" as the "two of us" would not be alone, whether planned or not.

Don Smith said...

Speaking as someone from a conservative religious background, the VP's rules make perfect sense to me. My father-in-law once had lunch with my wife, and my mother-in-law was informed by a third party that her husband had been out with some blonde (whom she of course immediately assumed was her best friend, not her daughter). That incident caused a great deal of strife in the family AND in the church where my in-laws were active in leadership roles. Unfounded accusations against men in leadership positions happen with disturbing frequency among the sex-obsessed moralistic crowd who have nothing better to do than attempt to make everyone else as miserable as they seem to be, and the Pence rules are quite common among conservative evangelical Christians.

The main reason such rules are common is because, as a general rule, nobody has any trouble believing that any of the men whose wives impose them would cheat in a heartbeat given the opportunity - and that belief is not without some foundation.

Shag from Brookline said...

David, the "Pence Rule" might not be violated with Mrs. Butterworth accompanying Aunt Jemima pancakes at breakfast. That might be culinary menage a trois.

Joe said...

Do certain men avoid dining alone with solitary men too?

Shag from Brookline said...

All kinds of men have at times utilized a "beard" (male or female) to accompany the couple wishing to dine publicly. Sometimes three's not a crowd.

Shag from Brookline said...

For an anecdotal aside, I recall a conversation many decades ago with my older brother, then a salesman for a chemical company, who used to travel fairly extensively. I asked him about dining alone when he was on the road. He said this was not much of a problem as many restaurants had "Drummers' Tables" to accommodate traveling salesmen comparing their sales techniques with drinks and dining. Taverns of course historically accommodated those who did not want to imbibe/dine alone. It's nice where everyone knows your name. Cheers.

Joseph Simmons said...

To the extent we are able to forgive Bill Clinton for his career advancement initiatives offered to women, I think we can forgive Pence. What seems to pique people most (aside from the foreignness) is that Pence abides rules, rather than the commonplace habit of making work friends of the same sex and generally not being as open to private dining with someone of the opposite sex. Whatever habits or quirks one has relating to interpersonal relations, I agree one should be fair in the workplace. I don't think such fairness requires gender neutral rules in all respects, although from the legal perspective - itself dominated by rules - there is a risk.

Joe said...

"To the extent we are able to forgive Bill Clinton for his career advancement initiatives offered to women, I think we can forgive Pence."

Unless "career advancement" is major snark, and given the writer, it might be, I'm not sure what the "both sides do it" balance is supposed to be here.

People denounced what Clinton did though some said still on balance it paid to support him. It was not like the other side didn't harass etc. & their policies were wrong. Such is the idea. Clinton also denied various things, realizing people thought it wrong. Pence, unlike Clinton, is advancing the idea that this is a good thing. His policies are in various ways a burden on women.

So, yes, less forgiving involved. OTOH, if you are conservative minded, but find this particular habit of his wrong, I can understand how you might forgive it more.

Clyde said...

I agree with Joseph's comment. There is something respectable about Pence publicly speaking about his rule. It's something along the lines of "the first step to addressing a problem is admitting there is one". Suppose Pence had the rule but kept it silent, or, perhaps more problematically, wasn't completely conscious of the fact that he was only dining with male business associates. At least putting the rule out there allows him to come face-to-face with how this could effect gender equality and potentially apply practices to address it.

It appears now, with all the public scrutiny, he almost has to come out and speak about how he makes this practice gender neutral.

Shag from Brookline said...

VP Pence's speaking of his "Pence Rule" rather than keeping it silent, seems like a form of Revevengelicals' political proselytizing empowered by the election of President Trump whom they supported despite Trump's lifetime history of conflicts with their rules. I anxiously await Bill Maher's "New Rule" on the "Pence Rule." Perhaps Pence spoke out to distinguish himself from his leader, even though they won on the same ticket. Can we assume that Pence actually welcomes "all the public scrutiny"?

Joseph Simmons said...

Joe, I appreciate the recognition that I often say things in jest and with rampant sarcasm. However, I am obviously not saying both sides do it or otherwise dismissing concerns because of what Clinton did as president and as governor. I get why people still supported him and why he came out of it generally respected despite his misdeeds. Another man who became president said some crude things and was given a pass by supporters who should have been put off. It's amazing how amazed people alternatively are about what the other side tolerates or rejects.

Clyde puts it well, that Pence might follow certain guidelines silently and without great deliberation or consciously apply a rule that forces him to be aware of his actions and how they impact his work. I think we might recognize his virtue as a virtue.

Shag from Brookline said...

I personally can understand and appreciate that one who "often say[s] things in jest and with rampant sarcasm" can be serious. So, assuming Joseph is serious with his:

"I think we might recognize his [Pence's] virtue as a virtue."

perhaps the "Pence Rule" should be added as an amendment to the 7th Commandment. I say this understanding that there is no amendment procedure in the Bible regarding the Ten Commandments. Seriously. But perhaps the "Pence Rule" might be considered at a second constitutional convention

David Ricardo said...

You people don't get it.

There is nothing wrong with Pence's policy, and it his actions are not only not part of public
policy they are not even relevant to the public.

But what is relevant is his incredible hypocrisy, that he is not only willing to tolerate a man like Trump whose personal behavior is highly offensive in general and even more so with respect to the values that Pence purports to hold but Pence is working for and actively supporting the person. When tested with respect to his values Pence gets an F.

Shag from Brookline said...

Query: Might VP Pence going public with the "Pence Rule" be considered Revengelical McCarthyism, as it might impact elected officials, Christian or otherwise, who do not observe the "Pence Rule"? Might the "Pence Rule" impact a President Pence from having a female VP? And consider the "Pence Rule" as it might be applied to a female elected official?