A Consciousness-Changing Moment

Can anything good come out of this appalling presidential campaign? Actually, yes. It's already happening. We are witnessing a rare consciousness-changing moment in public life. Men and women have suddenly become conscious of the shocking reality of sexual assault.

Consciousness-changing moments are the events journalists live for, when a vivid experience transforms public awareness virtually overnight. I have witnessed several in my career.

One happened in 1991 during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas. Until Anita Hill gave her testimony, men regarded sexual harassment as something of a joke. They thought of it as "flirting." They failed to comprehend women's anger and humiliation at being treated as sex objects.

While Thomas ended up on the court, Anita Hill's testimony had an enduring effect. After she testified about her degrading experiences, sexual harassment was transformed from a joke to a crime.

I grew up in the segregated south where I witnessed first-hand the transformation of a society. In 1955, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama, her action released the pent-up anger and frustration of millions. Southern whites, who had allowed themselves to believe that segregation worked, suddenly saw how outraged black people were to live under Jim Crow laws. Consciousness changed. And eventually, a social order was overturned.

I was teaching at Harvard University during the student strike of 1969. At first, most students saw the anti-Vietnam war protesters as crazy radicals acting out. Then in the early morning of April 10, university authorities called in the police to forcibly remove students occupying the administration building. The resulting bloody confrontation roused student consciousness. What had been something of a joke on April 9 turned into a deadly serious cause on April 11. I could see it in my classes: career-minded students were transformed overnight into political activists.

In 1991 Rodney King, an African-American taxi driver, was brutally beaten by the Los Angeles police following a high-speed car chase. The incident was captured by a witness with a video camera. The footage shocked viewers because they could see graphic evidence of police brutality with their own eyes. The episode raised public consciousness of abusive police treatment of minorities -- something that minorities had long been aware of but whites had to see with their own eyes.

When Matthew Shepherd was brutally murdered on a Wyoming fencepost in 1998, the public began to understand the violence and hatred gay people face. Previously, many Americans saw gay rights as a solution for which there was no known problem. But consciousness suddenly changed. Now same-sex couples have the constitutional right to marry.

This month, the country heard Donald Trump's vulgar boasts about sexually assaulting women: "When you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.'' People saw and heard the words coming out of Trump's own mouth. The result was to heighten public awareness of what women have experienced for ages. Trump's boasts had a powerful impact on women who had long suffered in silence because they felt shame or because they were reluctant to accuse male authority figures.

The New York Times reported, "Couples say they are talking to each other about the degradation of women in new ways and revealing assaults that had been buried for years." All over the country, wives are telling their husbands and children about experiences of sexual assault they had kept hidden for decades. Experiences of being groped and flashed and heckled and followed -- exactly what Trump was boasting about.

"We're having a national conversation about new rules," a Stanford University historian observed. "We are nationally trying to rethink issues of sexuality, consent, autonomy, relationships."

Trump tried to dismiss his remarks as "locker room banter" and claimed never to have acted on them. But women started to come forward and put names behind the accusations. First Lady Michelle Obama gave voice to the outrage when she said, "This is not normal. This is not politics as usual. This is disgraceful. This is intolerable."

Will the change in public consciousness have consequences? Last summer, the chief executive of Fox News was ousted after female staff members charged him with improper sexual advances. And Trump? Women are solidifying their opposition; Hillary Clinton now leads Trump by 20 points in the ABC News-Washington Post poll. Men are unlikely to save him. For the first time this year, men, too, are tilting against Trump (by three points in the ABC-Post poll).

Trump's abusive remarks belong to a different world -- an Old America that Trump and his supporters are nostalgic for. In a survey just released by the Public Religion Research Institute, 72 percent of Trump supporters say American culture and way of life have changed for the worse since the 1950s. Seventy percent of Hillary Clinton supporters say things have changed for the better.

Implicit tolerance of sexual assault is gradually being assigned to the past, along with racism, homophobia and abusive police behavior toward minorities and dissenters. But before we can declare those things intolerable, they have to be exposed. That is what Trump has accomplished.