Lately it seems that nary a month goes by without some high-powered media mogul or celebrity getting caught with his pants down — literally. Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes, and Bill O’Reilly are just the latest in a long line of powerful show business philanderers, gropers, harassers, cheaters, and liars. You can add their names to those of Arnold Schwartzenegger, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, Donald Trump, and numerous others over the years.
What are we to make of these powerful men behaving badly? Are there lessons we can learn from their deplorable behavior?
I would suggest the answer is “yes.” We often learn as much — or even more — from bad examples as we do from good ones. Or as British crime novelist Catherine Aird put it: “If you can’t be a good example, you’ll just have to serve as a horrible warning.”
So, what can we learn from Harvey Weinstein and all the other media miscreants?
First, the human mind’s capacity for denial is powerful. Most, if not all these men undoubtedly rationalized their behavior in order to continue it. They are con artists whose professional success involves conning people into believing their stories, their public image, their brand. It turns out that most of all, they conned themselves. We should never underestimate the power of denial — in ourselves or in anyone else.
Second, power, prestige, fame, and money are intoxicating. Mixed together, they are a powerful cocktail capable of lowering moral inhibitions and freeing men from the constraints of conscience and convention. These show business philanderers are not sober and rational — they are drunk on power, fame, money, and ego. Some of these men are out-and-out sex addicts who reach for every pretty young thing the same way an alcoholic reaches for a bottle or a drug addict reaches for his pills. Some of these sex offenders are sick, very sick – deeply disturbed – compulsively acting out their mental, emotional, and spiritual dis-ease.
Third, these sexually abusive media men are surrounded by enablers who turn a blind eye to the boss’s bad behavior. That’s what makes it possible for serial abusers to exploit victim after victim – year after year, decade after decade – without paying any penalty. Show business is a small professional world in which blowing the whistle on a powerful sexual predator is a career-ending move. Assistants, stage hands, performers, publicists, agents, and all the other players know that it’s important to keep the boss happy – and it’s equally important to protect him from the consequences of his own bad behavior. If he goes down, he’ll take many others down with him. So his enablers participate in a conspiracy of silence and/or cover-up. They are his partners in crime – literally.
Fourth, who among us has not behaved badly? Or, who among us would not behave badly, given the right opportunity? According to the “Journal of Marital and Family Therapy,” 22 percent of married men admit to marital infidelity; 57 percent acknowledge cheating in any relationship they’ve had; and a whopping 74 percent say they would have an affair if they knew they would never get caught. It’s easy for us to act as judge, jury, and executioner when it comes to our celebrities and media figures — but are we really are as pure and righteous as we’d like to think we are? Perhaps our time and energy would be better spent strengthening our own marriages, rather than scolding others about theirs.
And finally, we can practice compassion for the miscreants. Bad behavior is often driven by deep-seated insecurity, self-loathing, fear, and/or a profound longing to be loved. All the world’s great spiritual traditions preach the virtue of compassion.
That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t hold powerful men accountable for their bad behavior — we definitely should – and we definitely do. But we must also offer them the hope of forgiveness, restitution, and redemption.
So, while I am disgusted by the reprehensible behavior of powerful men who should know better – I also recall a church marquee I saw many years ago that read: “Those who deserve love least, need it the most.”
No one – not producer Harvey Weinstein, nor pundit Bill O’Reilly, nor comedian Bill Cosby, nor even our reality show president Donald Trump – will ever be transformed by public hatred. Only love can transform an addict, and only love can redeem a sexual predator. Tough love, that is.
BJ Gallagher is a sociologist and the author of over thirty books, including “Everything I Need to Know I Learned from Other Women” (Conari Press) and “Why Don’t I Do the Things I Know Are Good for Me?” (Berkley/Penguin).