Mike Pence and the Cultural Rorschach

By Jeff Laird

Rorschach test: "...projective method of psychological testing in which a person is asked to describe what he or she sees in 10 inkblots, of which some are black or gray and others have patches of colour." (Encyclopedia Britannica)
Judging by reactions from the always-fair, level-headed, and well-informed world of social media entertainers and self-appointed "journalists," U.S. Vice President Mike Pence is a woman-hating rapist-in-waiting, who fears and loathes females so much he refuses to be around them. That, or a certain segment of the population is so desperate to see what they want to see that they'll find it even where it doesn't exist.

The current firestorm of breathless commentary comes in the wake of a single line from a recently published a story in the Washington Post. This one sentence set off quite a kerfuffle, especially in "progressive" circles.

Given the hyperventilating happening on Twitter, Facebook, and left-leaning webpages, one would assume this revelation laid bare some filthy scandal, a blatant affair, or a Trump-esque hot-mic moment. Did Pence declare his derision for women, his refusal to hire, speak to, or interact with women? His exclusion of women from his work, his meetings, his social circles? His condescension and belittling of 50% of the world population?

Actually, it was this (brace yourself):
"In 2002, Mike Pence told the Hill that he never eats alone with a woman other than his wife and that he won't attend events featuring alcohol without her by his side, either."
Gasp...clutch...stagger! For the last 15 years, Mike Pence has chosen not to meet with women alone, and does not drink socially unless his wife is with him. Oh, snap! Mike Pence sure is...uhh...square, or something.

To grasp how senseless some of the backlash has been, consider the details of this earth-shattering statement. Pence isn't refusing to eat with women, ever. Nor to meet with women, at all. He's avoiding a fairly narrow set of circumstances: namely, being alone with women other than his wife. No part of his statement indicates women are excluded lock, stock, and barrel from meetings, meals, mentoring, hiring, and so forth.

Frankly, the Washington Post's wording is fairly specific; it doesn't leave room for a reasonable person to get the wrong impression. And yet, it seems to be acting as a kind of cultural inkblot test, leading critics of Pence to claim this as evidence of his wanton, oversexed fear of losing self-control. Or that The Vice President's conduct in this matter is actually a crime.

Pseudo-theologians from Facebook pages far and near are citing John chapter 4, claiming that Jesus wouldn't have made such a sexist, sinful, anti-spiritual choice. I guess part of the Google Theology curriculum is understanding that a spontaneous, outdoor, daytime evangelism, initiated by the Son of God, with a total stranger, in an extremely public place, is exactly the same thing as a modern married politician holding planned, semi-private dinner meetings entirely alone with a female co-worker. So...yeah.

One talking head even claimed Pence's policy as an example of rape culture. Yes, really, and she did it via a headline egregiously misrepresenting Pence's actual policy. Because — apparently — women didn't have a hard enough time as it was getting their concerns about objectification taken seriously.

The above reactions are not just silly and embarrassing. They come across as examples of the concept of "projection." This is the idea of subliminally casting one's faults onto others, as a psychological defense mechanism. The Rorschach test, defined above, is based on a vaguely-related approach: using peoples' reactions to something external as a way to gauge their personalities. The Rorschach test itself isn't thought of as very compelling today. However, the principle looks downright prophetic when social media gets ahold of Mike Pence's dinner plans.

Lacking some internal guilt over sexuality, personal control, self-esteem issues, flat-out shame, or just plain old socio-political prejudice, it's hard to explain how some of the aforementioned criticisms could have been assumed, let alone published. Sympathize with the Vice President or not, the purpose for Pence's behavior should be obvious. Even if you disagree with his method, it shouldn't be that hard to respect it, and his motivations.

First, this is not a new idea. The principle of a man never being alone with an unrelated woman, other than his wife, is part of an Evangelical approach often called the "Billy Graham rule," though its basic principles predate even Graham. Pastors, businessmen, salesmen, and others — of both genders — have been adhering to these kinds of boundaries for many a decade. In some medical, educational, and legal settings, the "no men alone with women" rule is actually mandated.

This is also old news for Pence. The initial "reveal" was way back in 2002, so this has been going on for at least 15 years. If this was latent (or blatant) misogyny on the part of Pence, one would expect parallel evidence. But we find none. He continues to place women in positions of trust and authority, where they communicate with him on sensitive and important topics on a regular basis. For instance, Pence's director of public engagement is Sarah Makin. His Deputy Chief of Staff is Jen Pavlik, who was also his director of operations while governor of Indiana.

More compelling, as far as this specific issue is concerned, is that at least two former employees, Ericka Andersen and Mary Vought, have publicly stepped out to debunk the notion that Pence's policy in any way hindered their careers. Also worth noting: more often than not, he doesn't spend significant time at dinner alone with male staffers, either.

Second, the fact that there's a mob-social-justice morass drumming up angst over this news is exactly what makes Pence's approach not just understandable, but almost necessary. American politics is flavored by serial predators like Bill Clinton, sleazy creeps like Anthony Weiner, and proud adulterers like Donald Trump. On top of it all, our culture spins tiny breezes into tornados of controversy and accusation. Why be surprised when politicians choose to draw lines in order to protect themselves from those risks?

Even editorials attempting to prove that Pence is hurting women admit there's an intimidating cultural bias, felt by men, when it comes to female co-workers. According to one such article, research shows some 3/4 of men are worried about being accused of sexual harassment, and nearly 1/3 had co-workers doubt the legitimacy of their opposite-sex friendships. Those concerns, in no small part, are inspired by the same hyperventilating, micro-aggressed, scandal-seeking attitude driving the present hullaballoo.

In other words, the same social structure which looks for any and every reason to accuse men of misogyny, sexual harassment, or impropriety is now shocked — shocked! — to find men choosing to proactively avoid situations which could fuel such speculation.

The better question is this: in an environment where one wrong word, or one wrong look, can be milked for hours of slander and media accusation, why wouldn't everybody follow some version of this rule? Shouldn't any politician's primary concern be their marriage, and their conscience? And why are so many people so offended by the idea — not even the rules themselves, but just the idea that someone would consider such rules in the first place (John 15:18-19)?

To be fair, any policy dealing with gender needs to be carefully considered. There's nothing wrong with inquiring whether or not Pence's actual application of this rule has a negative effect on female employees' careers. If it's possible to follow the rule while providing women the same mentoring, employment, and networking opportunities as men, that is exactly what a man like Pence ought to be doing.

Some are expressing concern that this kind of rule could be mis-used, or abused, in a way leaving women on the outside looking in. That's a legitimate point to consider. A man's general refusal to hire, promote, cooperate, or meet with a woman — even with an appeal to the Billy Graham rule — would be a situation worth criticizing. Seeking to avoid that problem is appropriate motivation to critique Pence's stance, in a reasonable way. Meaning, without the Freudian outrage or insipid, ignorant mischaracterizations.

As it turns out, when it comes to Vice President Pence, his back history, and the well-defined way in which he's using the rule, such concerns are easily allayed.

The truth is that men like Vice President Pence do not fear women. They don't live in terror over their own lack of control. They don't see women as incorrigible seducers who cannot be trusted. Nor do they hold any of the other asinine, immature caricatures with which Mike Pence's critics have smeared him and other conservatives over the last few days.

Men who guard their own hearts, and consider the power of assumption, do, however, respect their female co-workers. And their own wives (Ephesians 5:28). While they recognize their right to act freely (Romans 14:2-4), without being judged by the consciences of others (1 Corinthians 10:28-30), they understand how quickly people misinterpret what they see (1 Samuel 16:7; 1 Timothy 3:2), especially in a culture which treats sex as a cheap commodity. They take steps to steer clear of unnecessary temptation (Proverbs 16:17; 1 Corinthians 7:2), knowing full well that most family-crushing affairs start off as innocent interactions. They follow their conscience, for the good of their family first, even if the world does not agree (Romans 14:22-23).

Secular or Christian, male or female, Republican or Democrat, it's possible to disagree with the specifics of how Mike Pence chooses to avoid scandal and temptation. It's even reasonable to discuss how, or if, he should be applying such rules, at all. What's not reasonable, from anyone, at any time, is to suggest that such a choice speaks poorly of the man's character, faith, or respect for women. Whether it would be our choice, or not, a man who honors his marriage and his reputation, and the reputations of his co-workers, ought to be given at least an iota of respect.

Published 4-4-17