Mitt Romney's cautious and feeble answer to a question about Rush Limbaugh's misogynous tirade against Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke earlier this month might have an unintended positive effect: it is already serving as a case study for educators who teach the "bystander" approach to sexual and domestic violence prevention.
If you weren't paying attention to what has become one of the biggest stories of the Republican primary season, here is a synopsis. Beginning in late February, the bombastic right-wing talk radio host Rush Limbaugh went on a three-day tirade against Fluke, who had testified in favor of insurance plans being required to include coverage for contraception. Limbaugh repeatedly called the 30-year-old woman a "slut" and a "prostitute," and suggested that if the taxpayers were going to pay for her contraception, "And thus pay for you to have sex, we want you to post the videos online, so we can all watch."
Romney -- the frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination -- initially ducked questions about Limbaugh's rant. When he finally responded he managed to force out the meekest of possible rebukes: "It's not the language I would have used." Democrats and progressive pundits have had a field day with Romney's weak reply. Senior Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod said "I thought that was a cowardly answer, and it was a test of leadership, and one that he failed ... How can folks who calls themselves leaders walk away?"
Gender violence prevention educators across the country recognized Romney's response another way: as a classic example of a widespread problem in our society: the unwillingness of men -- not just young men, but powerful men as well -- to publicly criticize another man's sexism.
The bystander approach is an educational strategy that is growing rapidly in schools, colleges, the sports culture, the military and elsewhere. Simply stated, bystander-focused education engages everyone in a given peer culture: friends, teammates, classmates, colleagues and co-workers of boys, girls, men and women who are either committing or experiencing abuse.
The idea is to encourage peers -- young men and women -- to challenge or interrupt abusive behavior before, during or after the fact, or to support friends who are the targets. For men in particular, the idea is to help them develop the skills to challenge the sexist attitudes, beliefs and behaviors of their peers along a continuum that ranges from telling sexist jokes with no women present all the way to relationship abuse and rape.
When men in peer cultures throughout the society -- from high school students to corporate executives -- make it clear to each other that they will not tolerate or accept misogyny or disrespect toward women by their fellow men, the behavior will be reduced significantly, because most men -- young and old -- want to be liked and accepted by their friends and peers.
Romney's comment about Limbaugh is particularly useful as an educational tool because it highlights a common issue that comes up at the beginning of bystander workshops and trainings. Students often insist they would intervene or speak up if they saw one of their friends acting inappropriately or abusively. But later in the training, when it gets to a discussion of specific scenarios, these same students manage to identify a number of reasons why they might in fact not say something.
It turns out that while it's easy for guys to say "I would speak up" if one of my friends was engaging in sexist talk or behavior, in real life it can be much more difficult. There are often negative consequences -- at least initially. The friend might take offense at being challenged. He might react indignantly and angrily. If the perpetrator is popular, the bystander risks losing social standing in the group, as others rush to defend the more popular person. In some cases, guys are reluctant to call each other out because they fear it could sever a friendship, or even result in a physical confrontation or fight.
There are numerous reasons why men don't speak up even if they are displeased or offended by the actions of their peers.
That is why men who push beyond their doubts and anxieties about what other men think of them and say something nonetheless are doing more than acting as empowered bystanders. They're doing what leaders do. They're doing the right thing even with the understanding that there might be some potentially negative consequences.
Which brings us back to Mitt Romney. It is impossible to know what was going through Romney's mind when he heard about Limbaugh's misogynous tantrum. But one thing we know for sure: Limbaugh is a larger-than-life figure with the Republican base, and in recent years conservative politicians who have dared to chastise him -- even mildly -- have been forced to publicly humble themselves and apologize to Rush.
So it is not far-fetched to imagine that Romney -- a politician running for office -- wanted to avoid criticizing Limbaugh, even if he found the talker's comments rude and inappropriate. The downside was simply too high. Better to take some heat from young women and feminists in the general election than to risk the wrath in the primaries from older white men in Limbaugh's audience.
There are at least two problems with this (apparently) political calculation. In a world where millions of men harass and assault women but only a small number of men take a forceful public stand against this abuse, Romney missed a golden opportunity to model what it looks like when a powerful man calls out another powerful man on his attitudes toward women.
This incident also reinforces the idea that Romney is not a strong enough leader -- a strong enough man -- to be president. As Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said, "If you can't stand up to Rush, how are you going to stand up to Russia?"