This story reflects the views of this author, but not necessarily the editorial position of Fast Company.
Perhaps 2017 will be remembered as a year of reckoning against decades of unchecked abuse by men in powerful positions who take advantage of women. More likely it will mark another forced lurch forward in our gruelingly slow progress toward something resembling equality (just as in the year following Anita Hill’s testimony against Clarence Thomas, the number of women filing sexual harassment claims with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission doubled).
For now we’ve settled into a strange new daily routine of watching some of our favorite comedians, actors, journalists, and politicians bumble their way through the minefield of public mea culpa. These range from the common and infuriating “I was drunk/I’m from a different era/I don’t remember” to the well-meaning but inadequate “I asked for consent” (but didn’t get it).” In the rare but best-case scenario, the man will not try to excuse their behavior and will actually just say they are sorry. (To be clear: The form of the apology shouldn’t exonerate the perpetrator from the career repercussions of sexual harassment or assault.)
But while much has (and will) be written about these men, as well as the people who have enabled them, little mention has been made of how everyone else, everyone who wasn’t directly involved or affected, responds. It can be painful to learn horrible things about someone whose work you admire, and even worse when that person is a friend. But there are right and wrong ways to react, and mostly recently we’ve been seeing a lot of the wrong ways.
Here are a few, and how we can evolve past them.
The Urge To Smooth It All Over
Remember what the road to hell is paved with: The words of rape apologists. Bryan Cranston likely had good intentions when he shared his hopes for forgiveness for men like Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein with a BBC reporter earlier this month. But it’s way too soon to imagine the road to redemption, as Cranston did with statements like this:
We shouldn’t close it off and say: ‘To hell with him, rot, and go away from us for the rest of your life. Let’s not do that, let’s be bigger than that. Let’s leave it open for the few who can make it through that gauntlet of trouble, and who have reclaimed their life and their dignity and respect for others. Maybe it’s possible. It would be egotistical for anyone to say, ‘I hope he fails.’ To that person, I would say, ‘Fuck you. Why would you want that? So you can be right?
Yes, actually. Many people do likely think that rape and pedophilia should be career enders. And although he likely didn’t intend that statement to come off this way, it reads as if he’s saying “fuck you” to the victims. It’s not a very good look for Cranston and others who want us to focus on what it will take for these men to make good. Or as Amy Zimmerman wrote in the Daily Beast, “Cranston is asking us to take a break from honoring the stories of survivors to excavate the humanity of these monstrous abusers.” (Cranston has since said that his remarks were taken out of context.)
The temptation to move the conversation forward is in a way understandable. This is an uncomfortable place to be, but it’s an uncomfortable place that women have lived for their whole lives. All of us as a society, the “good men” included, have to sit in this discomfort for a while. We have to listen to each new story. We all (hopefully) want the same outcome: for these types of things to stop happening. But as we start to have the conversations on how we will move forward, whether it be through legal means, or an overdue change in the makeup of who holds power, or a combination of solutions that we haven’t come up with yet, the priority should be on how to build an equitable future where this abuse of power can’t happen, not how the criminals who took part in it can be redeemed.
This one is an easy pitfall to avoid: If you think you have a witty take on news of sexual assault, keep it to yourself. Daily Wire editor-in-chief Ben Shapiro likely thought this was a pithy response on a day accusations against Al Franken and Roy Moore dominated the news.
We have only one solution left: robot politicians.
— Ben Shapiro (@benshapiro) November 16, 2017
But you can guess what it was met with: a flurry of, “Have you considered women?” Shapiro’s backtracking of “Dude, it’s a joke” was met with a response that sums up why trying to make light of this wave of horrible news won’t land well: “I thought one of the points of the past few weeks was that, “Dude, it was a joke” is not actually an excuse for sexism?”
I thought one of the points of the past few weeks was that “dude, it was a joke” is not actually an excuse for sexism?
— Noah B. (@yaybody) November 16, 2017
This is another one that should seem pretty obvious, and yet it’s a common knee-jerk reaction. It’s the old “what was she wearing” trope of implying that victims have brought abuse or harassment on themselves by being too tempting or having what someone deems to be questionable morals. See Donna Karan’s now infamous response to the revelations about Harvey Weinstein. After the news broke, she said:
Are we asking for it, you know, by presenting all the sensuality and all the sexuality? It’s not Harvey Weinstein. You look at everything all over the world today, you know, and how women are dressing and, you know, what they’re asking by just presenting themselves the way they do. What are they asking for? Trouble.
She faced enormous backlash online and even gave a formal ABC News interview to try to apologize and walk back her comments. But she is far from alone in pointing the finger in the wrong direction. Also fresh on the heels of the Weinstein news, actress Mayim Bialik wrote an op-ed for the New York Times in October in which she implied that the reason why she had never been on the receiving end of harassment and assault was because she dressed conservatively and isn’t conventionally pretty. She, too, made several rounds of public apologies.
In 2017, you would think that deflecting the blame for someone else’s abuse would be a pretty obvious misstep, but if there’s anything the tsunami of revelations has taught us this year, it’s that we aren’t as enlightened as we’d like to believe.
Defensiveness And Denial
Victim blaming certainly fits into the defensiveness camp, but it takes many other forms, too. The most glaring recent example is Lena Dunham’s denial of the sexual assault claim against her friend and colleague Girls writer Murray Miller. When the news broke, she said in part:
While our first instinct is to listen to every woman’s story, our insider knowledge of Murray’s situation makes us confident that sadly, this accusation is one of the 3% of assault cases that are misreported every year.
Unsurprisingly, the accusation was in fact true, and Dunham (like Bialik and Karan) faced harsh backlash and issued an apology, but the damage to her reputation and her media brand Lenny Letter was swift, and writer Zinzi Clemmons quit in protest of Dunham’s statement and issued her own scathing take-down of Dunham’s hypocrisy.
Dunham’s response is not excusable, but for many people who find someone they’ve idolized suddenly thrust into an unforgiving light, it may feel understandable. It’s the way many are feeling about U.S. Senator Al Franken right now. To many, what Franken did was tasteless but “not that bad.” He’s a liberal darling who has championed women’s rights during his time as a senator, and by many accounts a “nice guy.” New York Times op-ed columnist addressed the conflicted feeling earlier this week in a column titled, “When Our Allies Are Accused of Harassment”:
It’s easy to condemn morally worthless men like Trump; it’s much harder to figure out what should happen to men who make valuable political and cultural contributions, and whose alleged misdeeds fall far short of criminal . . . My instinct is often to defend men I like, but I don’t want to be an enabler or a sucker.
These feelings are likely what prompted 36 women who are former staffers of SNL to publish a letter defending his moral character. Of course both things can be true, as comedian Sarah Silverman pointed out in a monologue about her friend Louis CK:
I love Louie. But Louie did these things. Both of those statements are true. I just keep asking myself, Can you love someone who did bad things? Can you still love them? I can mull that over later, certainly, because the only people that matter right now are the victims. They are victims, and they’re victims because of something he did.
I believe with all my heart that this moment in time is essential. It’s vital that people are held accountable for their actions, no matter who they are. We need to be better. We will be better. I can’t fucking wait to be better.
We are living through some growing pains right now. Many of these reactions come from wanting to avoid the inevitable discomfort of this moment. But now is not the time to contemplate the terms under which we can keep these men (even the ones we like) around, or draw lines on which misdeeds we will tolerate (the answer should be none), or to make jokes. Now is the long-overdue time to listen to the stories that women have been too afraid to tell, and to finally believe them. Now is the time to start the difficult work of changing the environments that fostered these stories and kept them hidden. And yes, perhaps now is the time for a changing of the guard.
Because, as Sarah Kendzior pointed out in a Fast Company op-ed earlier this month, “For every vile man, there are many talented women (waiting to take their place).”