Consent May 15, 2013

My friend recently shared an article that complained about dog lovers foisting their animals on the non-dog-loving public. Although I am a ridiculously passionate dog lover, I have to say I agree. People who don’t want to deal with dogs shouldn’t have to be approached by them. Also people shouldn’t have to worry about their shy dogs being pawed by strangers, let alone being pounced on by other dogs. Parents shouldn’t have to worry about their children being molested by strange dogs, and dog owners shouldn’t have to worry about their dogs being molested by strange children.

But the solution is not to forbid dogs being out in public any more than we should forbid children being out in public. The solution is simple, although it would seem near impossible based on so much of what we see in the world. It’s called “civility.” Civility presumes a) that you understand that you are not the center of the universe, which means that other people have needs and desires that are different than your own and b) that you can find out people’s needs and desires by asking. Really, does that seem so very difficult?

You can assume, just in general, that everyone exists in a little zone of privacy that belongs to them alone. You don’t enter a stranger’s house without permission, and you don’t enter their personal space. Not because you want to touch their pregnant belly. Not because you want to touch an African-American child’s curly hair. Not because you think they’re sexy and you want to get it on.  That zone of privacy is an acknowledgement that a person (or animal) is real, that they are entitled to want and feel and believe as they choose. It’s what we Unitarian Universalists call “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”

But privacy doesn’t mean that we need to live without connection, each of us entirely separate in our own little bubble. It simply means that you have to ask to be invited in. And you have to wait for the invitation to be accepted. You can ask whether someone would like to pet your dog before letting it come near them, and you can ask permission before petting a stranger’s dog. You can teach your children to ask before petting a strange dog, and you can teach your dog not to approach people without permission. But more than that you can ask a child’s permission before hugging them or picking them up, teaching them more effectively than any lecture on “stranger danger” that each of us has the right to choose who will touch us and how. You can ask a date’s permission before offering a kiss or other physical intimacy, combating the rape culture which insists that there are ways that a woman can “ask for it” other than saying what it is she wants.

You can ask, even when it feels uncomfortable, as when you ask an acquaintance what gender pronoun they prefer, or when you invite someone whose skin tone is different than yours if they would be willing to discuss a topic related to race. You can ask someone with a disability whether they would like help, and you can ask an older person if they would like your seat on the bus. You can reach out your hand past the edge of your own bubble of privacy to see if someone else wants to take it. You can, and you should. But then you need to pause to find out whether that person wants to reach out their hand in return. And if their response isn’t want you expected or hoped for, oh well. It isn’t about you. It just isn’t all about you.

We human beings are a community. We belong with one another. But we do not belong to one another, and the sooner we start acting like it, the better.

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