The media has been focused on the comments made by a now-presidential candidate aboard an Access Hollywood bus eleven years ago. But we should also focus more on Billy Bush, the now-suspended TV host who was also aboard that bus. Bush laughed and “egged on” the now-candidate before he made reference to the looks of the actress meeting the two outside the bus and cajoled her into giving him a hug. To the extent that some have thought about and weighed in on him and his role, it has been mainly to say that he didn’t really do anything that objectionable, and that he is probably not guilty of much more than being a sycophant. It is an important exercise, however, to think about the impact that the Billy Bushes of the world have on the workplace.
For every boss or employee who espouses views in the workplace that others find objectionable, there are likely multiple men and women in the “Billy Bush” role—attempting to court and curry favor by laughing, playing along with, or even egging on the speaker. College campuses tout so-called “bystander education” that instructs potential bystanders of sexual assault in the art of intervening to prevent what they may be about to witness. But in the adult working world, where appeasing, flattering, and impressing those in power is often a high-stakes game with unwritten rules, any impetus to do anything other than tolerate, or even stoke, the expression of such thoughts is typically lacking.
It barely matters whether the laughter reflects genuine amusement or is done through the clenched teeth of someone who has walked in the shoes of the target—or victim—of objectifying speech or behavior. It is of no consequence whether the spurring on of the speaker comes from true delight in his words or a desperate, sycophantic need to blend in and be accepted. The behavior appears to be condoned. The Billy Bush character has been absorbed into the revelry; he or she is now a purveyor of the message and a normalizer of the attitude. It is the Billy Bushes of the work world-fearful of being seen as reproachful, humorless, or contrarian—who enable the culture of exploitation to take root.
There is scarcely a woman in this country who has gone to school or worked in America who has not been coaxed or wheedled to hug a man whom she has just met, or whom she simply does not wish to hug. Every woman knows the difference between the kind of hug that is merely socially awkward and the kind that comes from a man who is objectifying her much in the same way that Bush was doing just before he got off that bus. Either way, much like being told to smile, being asked for a hug in a professional environment can make her worry that she will be perceived as standoffish or defiant if she does not comply. (Ask around; the universality of this experience among women is truly astounding.) And yet we wonder why, despite the existence of civil rights laws over half a century old on the books, women remain starkly underrepresented in the workplace, especially in its highest echelons of power, prestige, and compensation.
Behavior, including speech, that meets the relatively stringent standards for sexual harassment is, of course, actionable, but so much speech that is sporadic, or simply about women instead of targeted at them, falls outside of the ambit of that which is legally remediable, while alienating and degrading women. The only way to curb it is by creating a counterculture of awareness and explicit rejection of it. The Billy Bushes of the work world could be the gatekeepers of this counterculture, but without any incentives to so serve, and with every incentive (ambition, humiliation avoidance, desire to fit in) to continue currying favor and remaining on the inside of the inside jokes and uproarious laughter…why would they transform from passive (or worse, active) bystanders into agents of change and opposition?
We need to rethink what is transpiring in our workplaces, our public spaces, and perhaps most importantly—our private spaces, as well as our own reactions. It is easy enough to promote the noblest in ourselves and the dignity of others, or at least to grandstand, from behind a computer screen on social media—or when egregious scenes are shown to us on our television screens. It is easy to assume the role of hero around a water cooler. But what will we do—what do we routinely do—when, in the most mundane moments, we are asked to capitulate in the face of our most powerful associates and bosses, acquiesce to the hyperbole and “locker room talk,” or simply let our voice or our laughter join the boisterous din, rather than bothering to try to speak over it?