Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Wait Watcher: Foos, Talese and the Voyeur's Motel

Judged by the timeliness of my posts this hardly even counts as a blog. On the other hand, if something is not worth talking about two months after it was current it was probably never worth talking about in the first place. With that in mind, I turn to Gay Talese's provocative article in the April 11 New Yorker entitled "The Voyeur's Motel".

Talese describes a relationship he developed with a man in Colorado whose voyeuristic inclinations were so overpowering that he went to the length of buying a motel and outfitting the ceilings of the guest rooms with customized gratings that allowed him, from an attic runway constructed with equal care, to view his guests in their bedrooms and bathrooms without their knowledge. It is not the first time we have heard this sort of thing - I recall a guy who was eventually caught after installing two-way mirrors in his guest rooms - but Talese's subject, by the name of Gerald Foos, adds some interesting twists. 

Probably the most shocking is that his first and second wives were complicit in his activities, though neither one had more than a passing interest if any in voyeurism herself; indeed, the first wife helped him by acting as a subject and assistant to ensure both accurate placement of the gratings and his careful concealment behind them. Both apparently had sex with him regularly, unperturbed by his obsessive voyeurism. Another twist is that he not only kept this habit up for 15 years, but took copious notes, including what one might generously call philosophical, or at least sociological, reflections on what he was observing. (It sounds like masturbation was the first order of priority, though, with the notes "reflected in tranquility", if I may.) And the last is that he reached out to Talese and invited him out to the motel, shared his activities with him, sent him copies of what he had written and finally released him from any obligation to keep it private - brave stuff for a guy who spied on his paying guests for a decade and a half.

I have no intention of repeating the rest of the details here; by all means read the New Yorker piece, or Talese's new book from which it is excerpted, if you are interested (curious, excited, disgusted, outraged...) Quite a few people have commented on the ethics of Talese's lengthy relationship with Foos and his decision not to expose him to the police. That's all fair game but not my concern here. What I want to discuss is what Talese makes of all this, and what he doesn't. In the article, at least, it seems to me that he makes some great observations but avoids judgment on the deepest moral issues of the situation.

He does hit the psychological nail on the head a couple of times. One is the following general characterization of voyeurism: "A voyeur is motivated by anticipation; he invests endless hours in the hope of seeing what he wishes to see. Yet for every erotic episode he witnesses he is also privy to hundreds of mundane moments representing the ordinary daily routines..." Anyone who has been in a situation where there was an expectation of some discreet, sexually titillating experience of neighborly nudity, knows that this is exactly how it is: you wait, and wait, maybe staring at a dark window hoping a light will come on, or a lighted window hoping your subject will enter the frame, and if they do, you then wait, and wait, and wait as they do stuff around the house, entertain guests, or whatever, until something either happens, perhaps so quickly that you can rub your blurry eyes and miss it, or the light goes out and you just completely wasted a good chunk of time. 

Talese captures this feeling so well you can't help but wonder if learning about it really required studying Gerald Foos. Most guys have been there, by pressure if not by choice. Early in my first semester at college (I was 16 at the time) some guy talk over dinner turned to the matter of a very impressive young woman on the female side of the dormitory, and one of the group announced that she regularly disrobed with her curtains open right across the courtyard from his window, where he and his friends took in the show. Several of us were invited to participate in the viewing that evening. Unfortunately or not, depending on which side of the window you were on, no such performance took place on that occasion. 

Most men don't seek this stuff out in the obsessive manner of Gerald Foos, or buy a telescope like Dudley Moore in 10 - but then again, I knew a fellow, a co-worker at my first computer programming job, whose window faced the monumental apartment buildings across the Hudson in Jersey City, and who not only told me that he bought an excellent telescope for exactly this reason, but assured me that his attractive Filipino wife tolerated and occasionally participated in his astronomical pursuits. In any case, there are few innocents at this sport among men who have lived in an urban or college environment, and anyone who has allowed himself (or herself) to get particularly entranced with a certain subject can surely attest that there is no greater threat to human accomplishment than the time wasted waiting for some skin or lingerie to be revealed. One can only imagine what it must have been like for Foos, hour after dusty hour up in the attic, day in day out, hoping that some woman or couple, preferably not too unattractive, would put on a show, above the sheets, with the lights on. Adding up all the juicy moments he did observe might sound like grounds for some perverse jealousy, until you divide it into the hours he spent waiting, or the number of disappointments, which should have us thanking our lucky stars that we never found a motel to buy.

The other great observation Talese makes follows from this. He says of Foos's journal, "The more I read, the more convinced I became that Foos's stilted metaphysics were his way of attempting to elevate his disturbing pastime into something of value." That says a lot more than might appear at first glance. The voyeur is torn by two passions: the desire to make something of himself, and the obsession with watching others. In fact they are more or less the same thing: the creative impulse is there in the naughty act of getting some kind of sensual gratification with minimal effort, a vicarious sex act without all the preliminary engagement that having sex usually involves. The voyeur locates himself outside the social world, looking at it, judging it, using it, and that impulse could equally be the pose of an artist or writer. In fact that is precisely what an artist is, a voyeur of other lives, only not of a strictly sexual sort. The voyeur's entire creative impulse has been hijacked by one of its components, the sexual one, and he struggles with that and tries to do what he can to even it out. Foos is brilliant in a slightly cockamamie way, for he has managed to close the gap - by his own less than perfect logic - between the time-wasting, energy-sapping, often demoralizing pursuit that he is literally addicted to, and the true Foos that he believes is inside: the astute observer of humanity, the writer with original thoughts on the human condition. 

By my lights, Talese gets high marks for these insights. Foos, too, gets high marks, in a way, for the occasional honest reflections that Talese reports him making. After numerous clandestine observations of dishonest and degrading activity by his guests he begins to refer to himself as a "futilitarian" - the word put me in mind of the aesthetics of Stanley Kubrick rather than British moral theory, not because Kubrick once famously depicted a deranged hotel manager, but because in film after film he offers glimpses of a human psyche that mounts a tremendous, but ultimately futile struggle against its own fatal flaws. Elsewhere Talese quotes Foos referring to voyeurs as "cripples" who are "flawed and imperfect" (as writers too, apparently). Foos may be slimy but he is neither stupid nor entirely deluded about himself, and that is part of what makes him an object of interest for Talese, and for us.

But apart from the interesting psychology and neo-Victorian titillation of the story there are moral issues that Talese is somewhat reserved about confronting. Foos makes it clear that he does not think his spying is morally depraved, and he has arguments to back this up. The arguments are essentially: (1) nobody can be considered harmed if they never know they are harmed; (2) there is no other way to acquire untarnished sociological data on human nature and sexuality, for letting your subjects know they are subjects would alter their behavior, and the purer data is valuable in itself; and (3) given the extent of government and corporate surveillance in society today, there is no one with the moral authority to criticize his extremely limited and petty form of surveillance. I have reformulated these theses a bit, but I believe they represent the key points of Foos's defense of his behavior as reported by Talese. There are also strong suggestions that Foos thinks most people are bigger slimebuckets than he is and don't deserve his respect, but this is an indefensible general judgment and not really a claim worth considering.

What to make of these claims? Talese does not really engage with them, at least not by way of assessing their value as arguments; but they point in the direction of fairly fundamental moral issues. Let's take them one at a time.

The easiest to deal with, I think, is the second point. There are ethical standards for conducting scientific research, and to accept Foos's view would mean jettisoning some of them wholesale. That in itself doesn't prove anything, but the consequences can be ramified. The suggestion is that it is okay to conduct research on human subjects without their knowledge or consent if it is the best way to do it and may have benefits. Suppose we want to test a new drug that we know has a negligible effect on the vast majority of people - let's say it turns one hair on their heads a slightly lighter shade of their actual hair color - but where that effect can give us important information about its use in curing an insidious disease. Let's also say that people who know they are being given the drug immediately develop resistance to it. May we dose some unaware members of the population at large with the drug? It seems obvious that we are not allowed to do that, for many different reasons. One is that we can't be sure that there won't be a few people who have severe allergic reactions to the drug; just as Foos can't guarantee that he won't slip, causing one of his guests to become aware that they have been viewed, whereupon they might suffer severe psychological harm at this knowledge. There is virtually no personally invasive act that can be guaranteed never to have consequences, so we cannot utilize subjects in this way even if we intend to cause them no harm. Kant says that we cannot use people as means to our ends no matter how great the benefits, for to do so is to devalue one of the things that defines them as human beings: their ability to exercise free will. That is a thought worth pondering whenever one is tempted to minimize the damage done to others by using them in ways they would not choose to be used.

This point has some relevance to a broader debate in another context: the use of aggregate Internet usage data for commercial or security purposes without the consent of those whose actions are being accumulated. Even if individuals cannot be identified from the data, there is no getting around the fact that it is specific actions we have taken, many of which we would not choose to share if asked, that are the source of the aggregate facts. There is something very disturbing about knowing that someone - via some software robot - is gathering information on your buying habits, Google searches, Facebook posts and the like, and either selling it to others for marketing purposes or mining its security value. We want to have a say even in this remote and apparently harmless practice because it just seems wrong that anyone can track the actions of ordinary people and use the results for their own purposes. We want to be the judges of whether our actions should be collected, categorized and cross-referenced, not Google and certainly not the likes of Gerald Foos.

So I think the research excuse goes out the door pretty swiftly. What about the  surveillance argument? If everyone does it, who is going to throw the first stone? Well, I have just more or less committed myself to the idea that Foos's "research" is on the same unsound moral ground as Internet surveillance, so clearly I think there is a relationship there. But what of the fact that civil society permits this surveillance to go on, and the government and private entities actually do it, so no one has the moral standing to call what Foos was doing "wrong"? This point is valid, but it doesn't make his activities any better, it simply means that we have failed to correct the larger social problem. Ask yourself: would we consider the government better or worse if it simply threw up its hands and overlooked invasions of privacy in every form after recognizing its own transgressions? The answer is obvious, and points to a fact that the clever but not bright Foos overlooks: that he is a kind of predator, and we always want to be protected from predators, regardless of what other faults there may be with the executive function of government. 

This point stands even if we make more allowance than we probably should for Foos's alleged "research". Let's say his research amounts to something of value; that doesn't change the predatory nature of his behavior. Keep in mind that jerking off came first - he even claimed to have sex with his wife in his attic perch, turned on I guess by what he had seen that night. One seriously doubts that he would have created this attic of iniquity if he had for some reason been unable to receive sexual gratification and only conduct his putative sociological observations. Voyeurs do not deserve to be categorized with rapists, child molesters or other sexual offenders who directly take hold of the bodies of their victims, but they are predators of a sort, who know they are (often, at least) taking advantage of subjects in a way they would not consent to. Back to Kant, someone I suspect Foos never read (or at least understood).

That leaves the victimless crime argument. Here we get into some nasty tangles. Can someone be called a victim if they never know they are a victim? Can someone be said to have been "harmed" if they did not suffer in any way whatsoever? Let's say someone breaks into your house while you are gone, but does it so carefully that they leave no trace, take nothing from you, and leave before you get back. Can we say they harmed you? Assume you live in remote woods where there are no neighbors to see these breakins. Now let's say they happen every day of your life and you never notice a single thing - have you been harmed? 

This is a little like such "metaphysical" questions as "If a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it does it make a noise?" and "Isn't it possible that the universe disappears for a split second while you are asleep and comes back exactly as it was?" It's the knowledge issue: to what extent does our judgment of what is depend on our understanding of what we can know? Aristotle asked if it was possible to harm the dead. Most people don't worry about such things, but Gerald Foos and his ilk force us to consider these sorts of questions.

I will admit that my response to this argument is somewhat colored by my response to another issue of sexual ethics, specifically the issue of child pornography. As disgusted as I am that it even exists, I do not feel that viewing it should be a crime, nor even downloading it or possessing it except with intent to sell or distribute it. I have a serious problem with the notion that the mere exercise of one's sense faculties should be a crime under virtually any circumstances. You can perhaps point to viewing classified information as a counterexample, but once I again I would say, if the person has done nothing to facilitate or abet the release of such information, but just, for instance, went to some ordinary location where they had heard that such information would be available, they are guilty of no morally reprehensible act. People who create or in any way abet the creation or distribution of child pornography should face severe penalties, but people who do nothing but view it - especially online, where the practical obstacles to receiving it may be minimal - should at worst be referred for counseling.

The question for me is, what is Gerald Foos guilty of other than observing what was readily available to his senses? Certainly he was not merely opening his eyes, and allowing them to remain open as a person disrobed in his visual field. Foos created these opportunities, but what does that mean, exactly? If I happen to know that a woman regularly disrobes in front of a remote open window that is viewable from a certain angle, and I place myself there at the right time to catch a view of her, I am also creating an opportunity. What have I done wrong, exactly? Here you could say that I took advantage of the trust, built into our every day lives, that people will not go out of their way to create opportunities that involve utilizing us for their own ends. The situation is perhaps something like stealing someone's identity for a purpose that does not directly harm them financially, but entangles their personhood in something they would most likely not do if asked. Now what about Foos? He went well beyond standing in front of a window. Actually he apparently started out doing just that. (You can read the lurid details in Talese's article.) But how does his motel operation differ from that?

As I see it, the motel operation involves a similar kind of betrayal of unspoken trust, but also something even more objectionable: it involves an intent to deceive. Foos carefully constructed his viewing opportunities in such a way as to ensure that the grating in the ceiling would deceive his guests into assuming that they were simply air control ducts. He adjusted them to hide his presence, and designed the attic to keep his activities secret, all the while expecting guests to walk innocently into his lair. In handing them the keys to their rooms he conveyed an unwritten code that they would experience a certain level of privacy common to such situations, all the while knowing that they would be maximally exposed. 

This is a little like handing in a plagiarized term paper or dissertation: you actively take advantage of the code of trust (which may or may not be explicit) that this is your own work in order to get something that the other person in the transaction would not otherwise give you. It is also a bit like undisclosed corporate surveillance of office workers - keystroke counters, hidden cameras and the like. But it is not like federal surveillance of suspects for whom we have strong evidence that they may be committing crimes. This is a mistake Foos makes, perhaps a result of his experiences seeing or hearing guests do things that might throw questions on their own integrity. There may be no angels among us, but it is a fundamental tenet of a democratic society that no one can be subjected to such invasions of privacy on the basis of something like Foos's "futilitarianism". Even disregarding legal restrictions on warrants and the like, without a reason to believe that a particular individual is violating your trust you have no legitimate reason to invade their privacy. 

Foos betrayed and deceived his guests, violating the norms of society that operate in these situations, but did not refrain from charging them a fee for providing him with an opportunity to fulfill his urges and fantasies. In the big picture, they paid him for the possibility of maintaining the palace of perversion in which they were abused. What he should have done is open a motel for exhibitionists and announce to them at the outset that they would be watched, perhaps receiving some money from those who sought out such situations and offering a reasonable sum to those who might otherwise be reluctant. This might not have made him enough money to maintain the operation, but that's life.

So I have answered the third question indirectly, because I think we have to accept the idea that the notion of "harm" should be restricted to injuries that have a material effect on us, which usually means we have to be aware of them directly or indirectly, immediately or in the future. That is not the case when someone is merely watched, without further consequences. But betrayal is not limited to "harm" and carries its own moral weight. No one can be called innocent for having an affair that their spouse never finds out about, at least if the spouse would feel betrayed had it become known to them. Thus there are moral standards where the bar is lower than that of causing "harm". And in most of those cases, we as a society know what Foos's subjects may not personally know: that if we let things like this go by, we are all in danger of become the sorts of victims that Foos's guests became.