Noli me tangere!

by Chris Bertram on March 6, 2011

One of the weirder aspects of Arthur Ripstein’s recent book on Kant’s Political Philosophy, “Force and Freedom”:, was the emphasis given to unwanted touching as a rights-violation. Now when a Canadian gives an exposition of a Prussian it isn’t altogether clear whose culturally-bounded norms might be infecting their normative intuitions. But I was immediately reminded of the discussion when I read “Simon Kuper’s column”: in this weekend’s Financial Times. Kuper’s piece is based around Raymonde Carroll’s account of American and French cultural differences in her “Cultural Misunderstandings”: . Well, “read the whole thing”: , as they say.



Jacob T. Levy 03.06.11 at 1:25 pm

The French-American contrast sounds broadly right, but there’s regional variation at least on the American side. Casual stranger-conversation is much more common in the south and the midwest than in, say, northern New England or NYC. Coming from northern New England, I’ve never managed to become comfortable with the “American” customs about conversation, even though I’ve easily adjusted to the French customs about touching.


ejh 03.06.11 at 2:02 pm

Kuper does “national characteristics” just a little too much for my liking. I appreciate that such things exist (I’d have to, I’m an emigrant) and that in this piece at least, he says he’s “generalising grossly”, but at the same time he’s perhaps too fond of reaching for aforesaid characteristics as explanations.


Matt McIrvin 03.06.11 at 2:24 pm

Once while waiting for a bus in Boulder, Colorado, I had a conversation with a guy who had recently arrived there from Sri Lanka. The thing I noticed after about a minute was that his norm for how close to stand to somebody in a face-to-face conversation was much, much closer than mine, and we’d both been gradually inching along the sidewalk as a result. (It may have been more personal than cultural, since I haven’t had that experience in so striking a way since. But later I read somewhere that Americans have a larger bubble of intimate personal space than just about anyone else in the world.)


Balky Mule 03.06.11 at 2:38 pm

Noli me tangere

CT branches out into Filipino literature. I like it!


Antonio Conselheiro 03.06.11 at 2:43 pm

I have a German sister-in-law. Once on a family trip we overheard another vacationing family speaking German. I thought that in some sense my sister in law might want to say hi to her compatriots, but it turned out that, just because she was German, she could not do so. The rest of us might have been excused for our bad manners in doing so, but she wouldn’t be.


Harry 03.06.11 at 2:47 pm

I think it is pretty good about Brits. I was socialised never to make eye contact — impertinent — and my students find it very disconcerting that I don’t do it (I’ve tried really hard since reading Annette Lareau — well, since first teaching the book to a group of freshman students I had never looked in the eye. Interestingly, when I’ve helped out in my younger daughters classes, if I work with a black boy who won’t look me in the eye (very common) I feel very at ease with him, and am aware that others might mistake his deference for rudeness.

As for touching –I don’t touch much. In particular I don’t touch students — maybe, if I’ve known them for years and am friends with them, a brief and affectionate hand on the shoulder, when I know they think it is weird not to hug. This really struck home a few months ago when a female student told me she needed to leave the room. I accompanied her into the corridor and realised that she was about to pass out. A tall, and not especially skinny, girl, she had a long way to fall. Obviously I was obliged to hold her in my arms, but the amount of psychic effort it took me to overcome my inhibitions against doing so completely exhausted me. (It went ok, because the student I had hired to watch and criticize my teaching is a nursing student, and a rather good one, so she came out the room and took over, brilliantly).

Anyway, I fit one of his stereotypes to a tee (except for the drinking, which I have only taken up at the age of 47, 5 months ago).


Matt 03.06.11 at 3:06 pm

It’s been a while since I read the book and I don’t remember having any special reaction to this part, but it might be because an “unwanted touching” is a typical paradigm example of battery in the law, where a battery is an “offensive” or “harmful” application of force to another’s body. At common law no harm was required and any touching would suffice, if one hadn’t taken reasonable care to prevent it. This comes, of course, from the UK to both Canada and the US. Ripstein isn’t a lawyer, but he has a sort of legal studies degree from Yale law school and teaches in a law school, so I suspect that what he has in mind isn’t so much a cultural oddity but a typical legal example of battery. In most jurisdictions in the US (and probably elsewhere) some harm is required for a battery these days, but that’s to move away from the common law definition, which I strongly suspect is the sort of thing Ripstein has in mind.


roac 03.06.11 at 3:15 pm

Montenegrins are famous for reacting violently when touched. (This statement is based on one data point, and a fictional one at that.)

Here’s a related question: In cultures where it is customary to say “bless you” or “gesundheit” or whatever when someone sneezes (and which ones are they?), do people say it in public places when the sneezer is a stranger? Americans often do. But then I am often the sneezer, and I tend to resent it because it feels like being laughed at, and I’m American too.


SeanD 03.06.11 at 3:36 pm

On regional variation in the US: there’s definitely more touching in the (coastal) west than in the east – in many circles, anyway, the standard cross-gender and women-women greeting among even relatively casual acquaintances is a little hug; men hug less (though still more than in the east) but are more likely to shake hands/bump fists/etc. than in other regions. Conversational intimacy varies up and down the west coast – northwesterners are less likely to approach/talk to strangers than, say, californians (the ‘Seattle Chill’). I find that people in the east are more likely to strike up conversations than in the northwest, but that when they do, they tend to be markedly less polite/use less pleasantries.


Red 03.06.11 at 3:44 pm

Most of this is well-trodden ground. We can all add cultural tidbits to it (when meeting, French kiss twice, Belgians kiss thrice, etc.), but the new angle seems to be the legal thinking. So, my question to those who know more–and in support of Matt (@6): is this a purely north-American affair?


y81 03.06.11 at 4:07 pm

Further to @1 and @9: in my experience, which is pretty much limited to middle and upper middle class Northeasterners, women generally hug and kiss friends of either sex when they meet, and men generally hug and kiss female friends. So Kuper is a little off as regards this set.

If you want to flirt, you can slightly up the level of eroticism in these encounters, but that applies to maybe in a thousand episodes.


Jacob T. Levy 03.06.11 at 4:17 pm

I don’t think civil law rules– which are what would be known to Kant– would take the common law route of defining an touching-without-permission as a legal wrong in the absence of injury or measurable harm. But I don’t really understand delict, so I’m not very confident about that.

But I suspect Ripstein’s right about Kant; he hasn’t smuggled in common law assumptions. Kant’s style of thinking about right demands clean rules. “No touching-without-permission that leads to an injury” isn’t the kind of rule Kant endorses; it makes the morality of the action dependent on how it turns out consequentially. “No touching-without-permission” is the right kind of rule. And while it might not be the rule in delict, it resembles trespassing rules that work just fine in civil law.


Patrick S. O'Donnell 03.06.11 at 4:18 pm

I second Matt’s comment and want to note the unwanted or “unauthorized” touching is not only a battery in criminal law but in common law “is the tort of intentionally (or, in Australia, negligently) and voluntarily bringing about an unconsented harmful or offensive contact with a person or to something closely associated with them (e.g. a hat, a purse).” (Wikipedia) As Ripstein states, “touching is the SIMPLEST case for using a person for a purpose he or she has not authorized.” Ripstein’s discussion of the Kantian idea that each person be conceived as occupying a unique “space” is the metaphysical premise of the aforementioned notion: “each person is entitled to occupy whatever space is not occupied by any other.” Remove this metaphysical premise, and the whole “touching” thing seems–pardon the pun–a tad out of touch. (As an anecdotal aside, this discussion gives a new meaning to the ‘touching’ fights with my siblings on long car trips when we were children.)


LFC 03.06.11 at 4:45 pm

@y81: “men generally hug and kiss female friends”
my experience (with, I guess, a different subset of the same general ‘set’) is different: hugging yes, but kissing much less common.

And M. McIrvin @3: based on admittedly somewhat limited grounds for comparison, I think Americans in general do have a larger ‘bubble’ of personal space than is the norm, say, in S. Asia (e.g. Bangladesh, India), esp. outside of the Westernized urban elites in those countries. Again w/r/t S. Asia, some years ago (and I assume, though am not certain, this is still the case) it would not be all that uncommon to see young men (i.e. in their teens or a bit older) walking down the street holding hands with nothing sexual or ‘sexualized’ implied at all. Obviously, doing the same thing in, e.g., the U.S. would convey something completely different: adolescent boys do not walk around American cities holding hands unless they’re gay (and even in that case it’s probably not that usual).


salazar 03.06.11 at 4:59 pm

@14: The same applies in parts of Central Africa, also (Congo, Burundi, etc…) . It’s also quite common to see men walking around holding hands there, in some of the most violently homophobic regions on earth.


Henri Vieuxtemps 03.06.11 at 5:14 pm

The FT piece is a bit confusing. On one hand his theory seems to be that whatever is allowed in a culture is not, in this culture, associated with sex (“…I tried to explain to a British friend that Finns don’t seem to associate nudity with sex”). On the other hand: “…the former French prime minister Edith Cresson, disconcerted that British men didn’t look at her, estimated that one in four was homosexual“. So, is the French culture unlike the others?


Antonio Conselheiro 03.06.11 at 5:22 pm

A young winger recently published a piece about how wonderfully free France and Italy are, where men can grope women they’ve never met before in public places. On one thread American feminists and tourists were not amused. I doubt that American religious rightists would be either. No French or Italian women spoke up, to my knowledge.

Based on my recent reading, the French 19th century was a tidal wave of horniness. My conclusion was that the French were as fucked up as the puritanical Americans and British, but in a diametrically different way. The ideal French lover of that time seems to have been a tubercular waif with a life expectancy of two or three years (La Boheme, La Traviata, La Dame aux Camellias, three sentimental-erotic fantasies based on two actual tubercular women.)

After the Franco-Prussian war, the French started to reconsider their ways and decided that their defeat was to be blamed on courtesans and prostitutes, who admittedly had an untoward influence on the Second Empire’s policies.


Shelley 03.06.11 at 5:22 pm

Sigh. There are no more National Characteristics that count; only Multinational Corporations. I got the weirdest feeling this morning watching the Sunday Morning Shows that the Republican spokesmen were not in favor of made-in-America. They kept changing the subject to “trade agreements” and “free markets”….as the recent article in the Atlantic said, the CEOs of these companies live in their own free-floating world and regardless of country have more in common with their economic peers than with their “countrymen.”



bianca steele 03.06.11 at 6:39 pm

LFC @ 14
It is definitely not as common for young girls in the US to walk down the street holding their friends’ hands as in, say, Seoul, though especially for younger girls it wouldn’t be assumed to be sexual, as it would be for boys.

Some women hug pretty much everybody they meet, but this is pretty much restricted to New Yorkers.


bianca steele 03.06.11 at 6:48 pm

Also when y81 says “kiss,” he might mean “bring their cheeks to within three inches of each other.”


MPAVictoria 03.06.11 at 10:04 pm

In my little slice of Canada girls often hug both female and male friends hello. Men sometimes hug hello but usually only on a special occasion. Just for clarity I am a 27 year old government employing living in Ottawa.


Chris Bertram 03.06.11 at 11:53 pm

Harry, I was surprised about the eye-contact thing. I’ve really never thought that we Brits don’t do this. I’m sure I look people in the eye.

Matt. Actually I think the Ripstein thing is even weirder than I said, because I’m pretty sure that it is not “no unwanted touching” (which might be fair enough) but “no touching without permission”, which is quite mad unless you’re going to chuck in a lot of implausible stuff about tacit consent. But my copy is in the office, so I can’t give you an exact quote.


Francis Xavier Holden 03.07.11 at 12:24 am

In the last 10 years or so I’ve noticed a trend for people who disagree with you (me) and who are work acquaintances and almost strangers and who you (I) initially don’t like much will have a compulsion to have a hug of the all encompassing and over enveloping type. This seems to me to say something like “I’ve pretended to listen to your side, and accept the meeting consensus, but I’m going to go on thinking my way is right and working against it all”

My sense is it comes from USA, more precisely USA originating films and TV, but is now widespread in Australia.


Francis Xavier Holden 03.07.11 at 12:33 am

There is the famous ( in Oz) incident in teh lead up to a Federal Election, where Mark Latham, fresh Opposition Leader, met John Howard, incumbent Prime Minister, in the radio studio and gave him the aggressive – pull towards him handshake.

Seen by many as the turning point where Latham lost the election.

Something that had never been articulated before but almost every Australian knew it was wrong when they saw it on TV.


Francis Xavier Holden 03.07.11 at 12:34 am

The incident is on youtube


Patrick S. O'Donnell 03.07.11 at 12:54 am

The pertinent passage (pp. 45-46) runs as follows: “Touching a person without her consent uses her for a purpose she didn’t authorize; if she is also injured in the process, it may limit her ability to use her powers, at least temporarily. But intentional touching is objectionable even if harmless or undetected, or the injury is small. Your person–your body–is yours to use for your own purposes, and if I take it upon myself to touch you without permission, I use it for a purpose you haven’t authorized. The problem is not that I interfere with your use of your person or powers, but that I violate your independence by using your powers for my purposes. The trespass against your person is primary…. [….] That is why an unauthorized caress or kiss can be a serious wrong, even if the victim is asleep or anesthetized.”

As I said above, the metaphysical metaphor of personal/private space that Kant relies on here is determinative insofar as Kant, or Ripstein, has followed it to its logical conclusion: each of us by virtue of our self-possession of humanity as individuated bodies is entitled to occupy our very own “space” (we’re each entitled to our bodies that occupy this space or rather that space gives meaning to the metaphysical fact that our bodies are ours and ours alone, occupying a singular space as it were distinct from everyone else’s body/space)….


Harry 03.07.11 at 1:10 am

I think there’s a class component to it (my parents, despite my dad’s eventual elevation, were solidly lower-middle in their habits and tastes) — I really noticed the difference between the habits of my working class schoolfriends and my upper class college mates. There is also the depression factor, no doubt. I have been working hard at it for 3 1/2 years, and especially since last summer, and it is only since last summer that I have found it pleasurable, one of numerous changes in my life.


Martin Bento 03.07.11 at 1:25 am

Was Kant unfamiliar with crowds? Yes, crowds can provide cover for gropers and pickpockets, but, nonetheless, touching without consent on a crowded bus or in a stadium is pretty inevitable. I guess his use of “use” implies intent, but even intended not-consented-to touching may come up in such situations. If you grab someone to keep them from falling when the bus lurches, is that a fault?


adam 03.07.11 at 2:34 am

The analogy seems to be in part to the common law of trespass, which does not require harm, merely an intentional entry onto the land of another. Common law battery would be an intentional harmful or offensive contact without consent. Harmful or offesive would be contextual and determined by what would offend a person of reasonable firmness.


Chris Bertram 03.07.11 at 8:21 am

Thanks Patrick. I think that’s a good example of the nuttiness in question. So unless some equally crazy doctrine about tacit consent is invoked, France just looks like a zone of horrific serial rights violations from Kant-according-to-Ripstein’s pov. Italy is presumably far worse!


praisegod barebones 03.07.11 at 10:14 am

I find myself wondering what Kant would have made of Mark 5, vv 27-34;&version=ESV;


Matt 03.07.11 at 12:35 pm

Chris- my copy of Ripstein’s book is at my office and I’m not going to try to dig into the Kant, but I think a reasonable way to understand the case is like this. First, it seems completely plausible to me that Italy (and maybe France, according to some accounts) is a zone of serial rights-violations, especially of women, though I guess they get used to groping after a while. Secondly, we’d want to distinguish between a time when there is law in place and after it. (This stuff is about law and rights, not personal morality, of course.) Once there’s law in place, we use that rather than our personal judgment, as we did before law was in place. In such a situation we use a “reasonableness” standard that’s based on community norms to decide which touches are acceptable or not, at least most of the time and without further warning or discussion. This is then similar to many other areas of the law. I don’t remember well enough whether either Ripstein or Kant actually say something like this, but I think it’s both completely compatible with the important parts of their views and also largely right.


piglet 03.07.11 at 4:15 pm

He had been puzzled at first, he said, that American women didn’t flirt with him. In France, he explained, you always flirted whether you fancied someone or not. The flirting meant nothing. Only after longer acquaintance would you discover whether the woman actually liked you.”

I made the experience that American women (in the South) almost always smile on eye contact. Even strangers just passing by. I have been wondering how general a cultural characteristic that is?

But they, too, follow one ground rule shared by the French, Americans and British: they only get naked with people of the opposite gender in sexual situations.

The Latins may not get naked but women go bare-breasted at the beach, as do the Northern Europeans, but not Americans. Also, it’s not just an “opposite gender” thing. Americans often go to the sauna wearing clothes, even though the sauna is usually gender segregated.
Another American custom that appears weird at least to Northern Europeans is the habit of requiring even small children to wear swim suits at the beach. I’m not sure about Latin customs in this respect. Thomas Mann related (in Mario und der Zauberer) how Italians at a beach react with outrage to an 8 year old child being naked while washing her swimsuit. He found that unbelievably prude, and that was in 1929.


Chris Bertram 03.07.11 at 7:20 pm

_I think a reasonable way to understand the case is like this. First, it seems completely plausible to me that Italy (and maybe France, according to some accounts) is a zone of serial rights-violations, especially of women, though I guess they get used to groping after a while._

Matt, I think Ripstein is completely clear in multiple sections of the book, and that the prohibition is a quite general one on touchings without permission. It is a prohibition that steps, as Patrick says above, from claims about persons and their bodies. He doesn’t need sympathetic interpretation.

Of course gropings are wrong, but that’s not at issue here. The issue is touchings without prior permission. The idea that the default is no touching and that this might get relaxed under law in the light of local community norms also strikes me as bizarre. Presumably, those more relaxed community norms get established through rights violations then?

To believe this stuff you have to be either a member of a community with strong anti-touch norms and to have internalized that as universal “common sense” or to be in the grip of a bizarre philosophical theory. That people in the grip of bizarre philosophical theories convince themselves of strange principles (normative and otherwise) is no surprise.


Myles 03.07.11 at 7:30 pm

Some women hug pretty much everybody they meet, but this is pretty much restricted to New Yorkers.

This actually applies better to suburban Connecticut and New Jersey than NYC proper. I know girls in Connecticut high schools who’ve adopted the French habit of la bise.


piglet 03.07.11 at 8:01 pm

Is anybody familiar with the history of kissing customs? For example, has it been a longstanding custom in France or is it a modern phenomenon? I believe that in Germany, to the extent that it is practiced today it is a recent phenomenon and was adopted from the French model. Not entirely sure though.


piglet 03.07.11 at 8:02 pm

Referring to the custom of kissing the cheek as a form of greeting.


Philip 03.07.11 at 8:34 pm

For the UK there’s definitely regional differences too. You are far more likely to have a conversation with a stranger on the Newcastle Metro than the London Underground. Also in the South it’s more of an air kiss for a woman and man greeting each other. When I was in Italy I got used to kissing other men as a greeting fairly quickly, but I would still only shake hands with an Englishman.


johne 03.07.11 at 8:39 pm

“The Latins may not get naked but women go bare-breasted at the beach….”
Not in Ecuador or its environs!


Norwegian Guy 03.07.11 at 10:06 pm

Kuper writes:

“Americans won’t touch strangers, the French won’t talk to them, but Brits will neither touch nor talk to them”

That’s the case with Norwegians, and probably most other Scandinavians, as well. And I was thinking exactly what he was going to write about alcohol before I read it.

Topless women on beaches is going out of fashion here, by the way. If it ever were common. After all, until perhaps fifty years ago people used full-body swimsuits, and going swimming was uncommon until the 20th century.


chris 03.07.11 at 10:31 pm

Of course gropings are wrong, but that’s not at issue here. The issue is touchings without prior permission.

But isn’t “groping” just a specific form of touching to which the touchee is assumed to not consent because of the nature of the touch, presumed motivation, etc.? I’m not seeing a clear line (or rather, any particular culture may have a clear line between “culturally accepted casual touching” and “not culturally accepted as casual touching”, but there’s no reason to expect all those lines to coincide and in fact they don’t).

ISTM that if a member of Culture A expects a member of Culture B to be offended by a form of touch that is accepted in Culture B just because it’s *not* accepted in Culture A, there is something wrong with that reasoning: namely, the A-ite is subconsciously assuming that his/her own culture is secretly written in everyone’s DNA (or ordained by God or what have you), and therefore Culture B is just a bunch of people willfully violating the rights they all secretly know each other to have. That doesn’t seem like a particularly useful way of looking at Culture B.

…and no, I don’t have a good answer for how this translates to how French (or any other country’s) women generally react to being touched in ways that people from different cultures would describe as “groping”. Would the Frenchwomen themselves even describe it in the same way, let alone react to it in the same way?

P.S. I would however agree that *if* the Frenchwomen (etc.) don’t in fact consent to that form of touching but are told to shut up about it if they dare to complain, or some such, *then* their rights are being violated. But their nonconsent shouldn’t be presumed just on the basis of the cultural practices of a different culture.


piglet 03.07.11 at 11:07 pm

Chris 34: I don’t really know what this is about but does Ripstein even acknowledge that people touch each other all the time without explicitly asking for permission, and that most of these incidents are not considered as transgressions? Or does he have a theory of implicit permission that would cover consensual touching?


john c. halasz 03.10.11 at 7:30 am

Late to the party, but a case of “illegal touching”:

Though perhaps not as Kant et alia might have intended or imagined it.

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