A Historic Reckoning on Sexual Harassment: In Low Times, A Good Sign

A Historic Reckoning on Sexual Harassment: In Low Times, A Good Sign
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At long last, sexual predators across the workscape are being taken down---and the sound of careers crashing is thunderous. From the standpoint of simple justice, it’s about time. Finally, behavior that’s become too common is being seen for how truly ugly and damaging it is.

The question is: Why now? Why is the pushback to the stubborn problem of sexual harassment and assault in the work world reaching a tipping point now, when America itself---politically, culturally, morally---is at a historically low point, in what many call decline?

In other words: How can you fall in already-fallen times? At a time when our moral compass has long been lost, why isn’t this scandal just another nothing-burger? And at such a cacophonously noisy time, why are women’s voices finally being heard?

That this reckoning is indeed happening signals, I believe, encouraging things about America’s capacity to course-correct and perhaps reverse our decline (more later).

The scandal exposing sexual predators that began with movie mogul Harvey Weinstein roars on, snaring others. As the New York Times notes in another front-page story, “Disaster metaphors---tsunami, hurricane, avalanche, landslide---seem to be in endless rotation to describe the moment, but the point is that a great many powerful men have seen their careers disintegrate, and with astonishing speed.” (A partial listing follows; the details, which I don’t care to describe, are in the hyperlinks.)

In the media, they include: Mark Halperin, influential MSNBC political analyst and co-author of the bestseller book “Game Change”; Leon Wieseltier, Brookings Institution senior fellow and former literary editor---and moral philosopher---at The New Republic; Michael Oreskes, head of news at National Public Radio and formerly an editor at the Times. These men have lost their jobs and likely their careers, too.

Careers in Hollywood continue to crash: Film director James Toback and producer Brett Ratner have been accused by numerous women of sexual misconduct---in Toback’s case, by an astonishing 238 women to date. Kevin Spacey, two-time Oscar winner for Best Actor, is accused of raping a 14-year-old male over 30 years ago, triggering a series of other accusations against him, causing his ouster from the hit TV series “House of Cards.” Dustin Hoffman, another two-time Oscar winner for Best Actor, is accused of sexual harassment of a 17-year-old female intern.

Politics is another arena where men wield dominant power, not always humanely. At the state level, in the legislatures---including California, Massachusetts, Florida, Illinois, Washington---women lawmakers and lobbyists, either individually or collectively, have come forward to allege sexual misconduct of their male colleagues. In California nearly 200 women signed a letter circulated by the “We Said Enough” campaign citing a toxic work environment in Sacramento. Is D.C.’s Capitol Hill next?

In the policy world, in a gathering convened by Politico’s Susan Glasser, women national security professionals sounded off against “an adversary closer to home: piggish men” (full transcript here). No doubt women in other fields are convening for the same purpose.

Meanwhile, the scandal spreads abroad. The U.S.-based #MeToo social media campaign, in which millions of women have gone public with their allegations, has spawned similar campaigns in France, Italy, and Spain, also in Arab countries. In Britain, one cabinet minister has resigned and another cabinet minister is under investigation for allegations of sexual misconduct. Renowned Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan has been placed on leave from Oxford over allegations of rape.

And there’ll be more. In breaking bombshells, Republican Senate candidate Judge Roy Moore is alleged to have initiated sexual encounters with under-age girls, including a 14-year-old. And comedian Louis C.K. is alleged by five women to have---here I’ll defer to the hyperlink. The comedian admits the allegations are true.

Crucially, and the reason for the tsunami force: Women are realizing once again the value of collective action. Pushback requires lots of people pushing back---a truism overlooked in the occasional cycles of “I’m-not-a-feminist” reaction. This time enough women have come forward to say “Enough” with being pawed, groped, propositioned, or worse at work---to positive and powerful result.

Also crucially, other men, the “good guys,” are now more aware of what some women colleagues have endured, and vow to step up and assist with the pushback.

And men who were in a position to stop the abuse but didn’t, like film director Quentin Tarantino, who started out as Harvey Weinstein’s protégée and went on to establish a big Hollywood career, have admitted their complicity: “I knew enough to do more than I did.” (If Tarantino, creator of ultra-violent films like “Pulp Fiction,” follows up with a redemption tale, it’ll have to focus on this moral complicity, also the damage done by the violent---in other words, it means becoming a more human artist.)

But again, Why a reckoning now? One can only speculate, as it’s impossible to correlate cause and effect during a tsunami. But I’m speculating this mindset may be at work: With an admitted sexual predator in the White House, signifying a shameful low in the annals of the American presidency, with that predator ensconced in federal power, at least the nearer predator can be addressed and taken down (“Enough”). We’ve also had more than enough of the drip-drip-drip over the years of allegations about Bill Cosby, Bill O’Reilly, and Roger Ailes, not to forget the miasma surrounding former president Bill Clinton.

Another reason for a reckoning now: This time the sheer accretion of sordid detail and gross force of so many alleged predators has finally registered with the public. And what it registers---finally---is this: Sexual harassment is not just sexual. It is, at bottom, about the predator’s contempt for women and his need to subjugate these lesser beings to his sick self. And if he is in a position of power, as these men were, not only do they inflict personal trauma and blight their victims’ careers. These men also exert outsized power to shape our culture---movies and TV, the news, the political arena. And women, sick of it all, are coming together to push back. Women now know it is not they who need to “get over it.” It is men who humiliate and abuse women who need to get over it.

The implications of this reckoning are enormous---and encouraging. If we can recalibrate the exercise of our national power in a wiser way, if we can establish more equitable power-sharing between men and women, and if we can do this while at the bottom of the abyss (or on its slope), then there is hope for a New Day for us at higher altitude. America, so big and so powerful for so long, has at times abused its power, been predatory (e.g., engaged in torture). We, both as a nation or as individuals, don’t always consider that with power comes responsibility: We could do X with our power, but should we? No such weighing occurred to the alleged predators.

Another implication: This scandal has moved us to seek our moral compass once again. Decades ago we set it aside, not wanting to be “moralistic” or “judgmental,” which action permitted pornography, profanity, all manner of what used to be called sin. But at the heart of sexual harassment lies a great wrong, a sin if you will, of one human being abusing and abasing another human being. In our modern American way, with this reckoning we may be backing into moral consciousness once again. Few women are couching their harassment allegations in moral terms, but at the same time they cry out at its wrongness, judging it wrong. And the public also judges it thus.

All of which bodes well: To get to higher ground, to reverse America’s decline, we need to handle power better and use a moral compass. Because of this scandal, we are doing both.

Finally, the question: Will it last, this reckoning on sexual harassment, or will it fade away, only to allow in the next set of predators? As the Times writes, “We’ve seen this movie before,” but it also acknowledges, “This sequel seems to have a surprise ending, or at least a plot twist: The public outrage is deeper and more sustained, and the dominoes continue to fall.”

Institutions and professions assure us they are strengthening their anti-harassment policies, but, clearly, such policies have not worked to date. I wonder if deterrence---witnessing, as we have for over a month now, one big man after another crashing and burning in a big and dramatic way---may stay the predator’s hand better than any reprimand or even criminal conviction with prison time. For what is destroyed in these spectacles are not just career or “brand,” but name and reputation. These men are finding out how dear one’s name is, and one’s reputation---reputation, said Shakespeare, is “the immortal part of myself”---both of which, once gone, can never be reclaimed. I cannot imagine any ambitious man countenancing that spectacle for himself, that loss. (In fact, predators-still-at-large must be turning to prayer right now, hoping for a miracle.) Note also the men in the news are drawing no support from their professional colleagues, none. The humiliation is total---and such total humiliation may deter. Note, too, the poetic justice: the predator humiliated, as he humiliated women.

Of course the present spectacle involves men in fields that have always drawn the spotlight. But: What protection do women elsewhere in the work world have against the predator in their midst? That predator, given the powerful reach of the media, can hardly miss the headlines tracing the destruction of, for one, comedian Louis C.K.’s career---and his message about the power he held over women and how “I wielded that power irresponsibly.” Memo to predators: Listen up.

My one fear in all this is that a false allegation will be filed by one woman or several, which could be spun to cast doubt on the validity of the entire ongoing reckoning. Memo to women: Maintain exemplary conduct and solidarity with your sisters.

Ever since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, America has been in extreme churn. Some may feel this sexual harassment scandal is yet another manifestation of decay, another inch further into the abyss. But glints of salvation can be seen: the moral reckoning, the recalibration of power relations. And, importantly, in the spotlighted arenas---movies and TV, the media, politics---we have to capitalize on this moment and demand more respectful treatment and portrayal of women.

More than other scandals, this one in its sordidness is forcing a sober look in the mirror and a profound desire to get clean---as a people, as a nation. We yearn for a New Day. Who knew the rallying cry would be, not something like “Fifty-four forty or fight,” but “Keep your predatory hands off me.” But History can surprise.

For my previous post, “How to Deter Sexual Predators like Harvey Weinstein? Career Ruination and ‘Good Guys’ Speaking Up,” see here.

Carla Seaquist was Equal Opportunity Officer for the City of San Diego 1977-80, for which service she received N.O.W.’s Susan B. Anthony award. Her latest book is titled “Can America Save Itself from Decline?: Politics, Culture, Morality.” Also a playwright, she published “Two Plays of Life and Death” and is at work on a play titled “Prodigal.”

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