While Mike Pence may not have dinner with a woman who is not his wife, he may have succeeded in doing something people have been seemingly trying to do for a while—kill nuance on social media.
If you need a quick synopsis of the issues, Emma Green wrote an excellent piece for The Atlantic.
Basically, a Washington Post profile of Karen Pence, the Vice President’s wife, contained one line that sparked a million hot takes. Pence told the Hill in 2002 that he doesn’t have one-on-one dinners with a woman other than his wife.
And thus the internet furnace was heated seven times hotter than normal to burn away any and all nuance and reasonableness from the discussion.
For one side, this meant Mike Pence was without question and simultaneously a weirdo, a misogynist, a pervert, and an advocate for a Christian form of sharia law. He was holding back women from advancing and treating them as if they were only a sexual object.
He did all this by saying 15 years ago that he had a guideline for only having dinner with his wife.
On the other side, anyone who brought up any possible negative side effect to this guideline was somehow advocating for increased adultery and didn’t care about marriage.
Some said there was never a reason anyone should even think of having dinner with someone of the opposite sex unless there were ulterior motives.
This is the unfortunate byproduct of our hyper partisan culture. One side must rush to condemn with unyielding ferocity and the other side must defend and respond with equal or greater force. The goal is to “win,” not understand or learn.
But in this situation there is so much people can learn. Under the bluster and past the hot takes thrown out for clicks and shares, there is wisdom and perspective both sides need.
Here’s five things we can learn from Pence’s guidelines and the response to it.
Protecting a marriage is honorable.
Should this not be an easy statement on which everyone can agree? Mike Pence wants to value, protect and honor his marriage. Everyone should praise that sentiment and desire, even if you disagree with his means for doing so.
Many Republicans failed to recognize and commend the loving relationship the Obamas displayed in the White House. Now, many on the political left who criticized Trump’s cavalier treatment of marriage are attacking Pence’s opposite practice with his marriage.
Pence came to Washington after a wake of high profile politicians, many of whom championed themselves as family-values conservative Christians, went through public revelations of affairs.
Particularly of interest to Pence, Mark Souder, a fellow conservative Republican representative from Indiana, stepped down after having an affair with a female staffer. Souder did not take advice to place certain safeguards in his marriage and relationships with others.
At least in 2002, Mike Pence felt it would be in his and his wife’s best interest for him to avoid being in certain social situations without her. He wanted to honor his wife and protect their relationship. That is undeniably a good thing and it is not that unusual for couples to take such steps.
Marriage guidelines are not unusual.
Many were shocked to hear Pence’s dinner rule, but if they had talked with virtually any evangelical leader they could have told them about “the Billy Graham rule.”
At the beginning of his ministry, Graham and others who traveled with him discussed all the ways people in their positions had fallen. An obvious area was sexual temptation, so they agreed to avoid eating alone with a woman who was not their wife.
It wasn’t particularly about the other woman with whom they could have potentially shared a meal. It was about honoring their wife, seeking to avoid any possibility of falling into an affair, and removing the chance of someone taking their actions in the wrong way.
This is fairly common among Christian leaders. My wife and I had similar guidelines in place when we worked with teenagers at our church. It was a safeguard for everyone involved. But these ideas extend beyond religious individuals.
Back in 2003, Salon, a left-leaning website, ran an article from a man who almost stumbled into an affair through innocuous means. It even includes the line: “Affairs do not begin with kisses; they begin with lunch.”
In 2012 at The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote how he believed in placing “guard-rails” around his life and his relationship with his wife. “I don’t believe in getting ‘in the moment’ and then exercising will-power. I believe in avoiding ‘the moment.’ … I believe that the battle is lost at Happy Hour, not at the hotel.”
These are secular men who recognized their own weaknesses and decided to do something about it to protect relationships they value. Virtually everyone who is in a committed relationship has those “guard-rails” in place, but we should acknowledge they may have unintended consequences.
Personal convictions can harm others.
As of yet, no one has come forward with any evidence the women serving under Pence were harmed by his dinner guidelines. In fact, two women who worked for him have said they appreciated Pence’s valuing of his marriage and did not suffer any negative consequences from his stance.
He has had women on staff, including his deputy chief of staff and director of public engagement. As governor of Indiana, his lieutenant governor was female. There needs to be evidence before we accuse and assume Pence kept women from professional growth.
But it is undeniable that business relationships grow from time spent together, frequently over meals. If women cannot be part of those situations with a male supervisor that unfairly hurts them.
There should be some acknowledgement from advocates and defenders of the Billy Graham rule and similar variations that it has the potential to limit women professionally. When you can never have closed-door meetings with your male boss, it can unintentionally close other doors.
Understanding this fact can reveal the need for adjustments or workarounds that allow a person to maintain their personal convictions, but remove or at least limit the damage done to others.
The choices we make as individuals have reverberations far beyond ourselves. The way we live our lives is interconnected with the people around us. We are not islands, which leads to the last point and one that may be where the furor actually resides.
Private relationship matters can have public consequences.
For years, the stereotypical liberal viewpoint has been a “live and let live” idea. If you don’t want abortion, don’t have one. How does it affect your marriage if a gay couple down the street is married? What two (or more) consenting adults do is none of your business.
Yet, suddenly, it matters the way Pence chooses to live his life and treat his marriage.
But, you may object, this is different because it could affect the women around him. And if he has never discriminated, ideas like this create an environment where women are treated in a certain way.
On one hand, I agree with the objection. As I noted above, rules like the one Pence has in place can unintentionally harm women. On the other hand, I disagree this particular instance is somehow automatically unique.
Many would accept the existence of a rape culture, systematic racism or cultural sexism and how individual acts can contribute to those societal realities. Yet many of those same individuals would reject the notion that abortion leads to a societal devaluing of human life or that altering marriage in one area can lead to a cultural weakening of the institution as a whole.
But in arguing that Pence’s personal marriage rule has an impact on women outside of those who work with him, you are allowing for other types of individual choices to stretch beyond their direct circle of influence. As such, the arguments conservatives make about marriage and abortion cannot be derided as slippery slope fallacies without proof.
There are competing views of humanity in our country.
The real issue is that Pence has made a choice to limit the exercise of his freedom. He could have dinner with whomever he’d like, but he’s chosen a reduction of that freedom for the sake of something he values more.
In a long, but worthwhile string of tweets, Damon Linker points out why Pence’s dinner guidelines have provoked such an emotional response among many of his fellow secular liberals. Pence has challenged their underlying view of humanity and the ability of everyone to simply do the right thing using only willpower.
31. What if morality requires more social & cultural supports & encouragement than secular liberals are willing to live with?
— Damon Linker (@DamonLinker) March 31, 2017
What if, Linker asks, morality requires limits to freedom and those limits are things secular liberals are unwilling to forgo? What if we are faced with a real choice between individual and cultural morality and our obsession with personal freedom?
At that point, a dinner choice becomes much more important for someone like Pence and our response to it become much more revealing than we may like.