I’ve tried to get a pulse on what’s missing from this deluge of sexual harassment claims being made through Hollywood and the media. First there was Bill O’Reily, and it felt like the coverage was more to get Fox News than anything else. Nobody taking a principled moral stand, just using abhorrence to their advantages. Then came the Weinstein story, then Spacey, Rose, Halprein, Bolling and now Matt Lauer. The political aspect dissipated, how could it not? However, a monologue from Erick Erickson on WSB demonstrated a few missing points that either haven’t been addressed, or are being carefully avoided.
We’ll cover a few things here. I’m seeing a bit of a similarity in the sexual harassment conversation to the usual mass shooting conversation. There is an attempt to either contain what is evil, or to use it for political ends. To the former, every time some murderer circumvents three or four laws, the same few questions and statements pop up. “Who could do this?”, “I didn’t think this could happen here”, “we need to do something to make sure this never happens again.” Strangely, the same statements seem to come up in this wave as well. So let’s go through them.
Who could do this? (Evil is not universal): Anyone can commit evil. God says “The heart of a man is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21). Atheist H.L. Mencken once said he would see evidence “every day” in the newspaper that man, despite their best efforts will always “doomed to remain irrevocably human” (Joshi)[i]. Alexandr Solzhenitsyn once said that “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every man” (Solzhenitsyn). Not many could feasibly argue man’s “inherent” goodness. Even the Christian would say “made well, but corrupted”. The activist however, doesn’t seem bound to this reasoning. He always appeals first to the idea that “we’re better than this”, whatever “this” is. We are “better than” racism, sexism, bigotry and the like. Ironically, he seems to have his own definitions for each term. The argument, for instance, that black people can’t be racist because of a specific nation’s history (victimhood by way of unquantifiable generational debt).
What is it that gives the idea that we in 2017 are better than anything? In the gun control argument, there is always the asterisk of having a higher homicide rate than any other “in the developed world”? Barring the intellectual dishonesty of comparing a superpower of 316 million to a nation of 64 million and recoiling at the vast difference, look at what that suggests. Does one’s potential for moral fallibility decrease as the Razr becomes the Iphone? Were we really in trouble when you could kill someone with this brick of a phone? Now that technology has advanced and we are truly developed, certainly we are a nation that treats people with respect, that discusses ideas openly in the grand tradition of free expression that founded our country. And yet, we have Facebook and twitter and hordes of “news” sites dedicated primarily to stirring up (and keeping) their reader base angry and reading them and them alone. Maybe we should go back to the old transistor radio. Clearly technology has made us a worse people. Or perhaps the issue isn’t that technology has made people “worse” but that the negative side of humanity is more obvious to us than ever.
As present as evil has been, it has always been at a comfortable distance. 9/11 happened when we were young, schools may have kept the images away from us. Mass shootings have become a cycle. There are emotional pleas for “something to be done” and when someone asks what that something is and how it will work, the response is either personal (you don’t care about dead children) or evasive (we don’t have time to talk about that). ISIS violence happens comfortably out in some nowhere stretch of desert save for the occasional European attack we can change a picture on facebook for.
But now something is different, it was assumed that the person who they see on the TV is just as personable as he appears. Now people we all thought we knew are flawed and not in that quirky sense. They are deeply flawed, destructively so. You can see the unraveling When this first began with Bill O and Eric Bolling, the general narrative was sardonic moralizing about how those “so-called Christians” weren’t saints after all (though Bolling nor O’Reily ever claimed to be Christians). So, we finally have a (subjective) discussion on moral evils like sexual harassment. But then claims start coming out from the other side of the aisle. As in, several. Weinstein, Spacey, Franken, Rose, Lauer. Now there doesn’t appear to be any moral discussion beyond “it’s just wrong”. Now that there are fewer political points to be gained, each case becomes its own separate case with no connective tissue. It’s a purely isolated issue where the nation can collectively sigh: “Oh, man, I had no idea, how could they do that? What’s going on over there?”
We are thankfully, able to distance ourselves from this. We can say that after those people are all revealed, media will be what some shining beacon of something greater (whatever that might have been) that it apparently was, one assumes, during the election of 2016 before these stories arose and shattered the national innocence. Theologian N.T. Wright notes that seeing it this way is like watching a movie, “seen from a safe distance, this can be a way of saying to ourselves that yes, evil may well exist- there may be chaos out there somewhere” but that we are not threatened by it. Beyond that, everything else is fine. The bad people will be expunged and while there may be evil within us, it is under control. (Wright, Evil and the Justice of God) We are not able to be publicly humiliated first off, and if we were, what’s the worst one can say about us? Ask your worst enemy, or the friend who knows your flaws for that answer. It may be the same thing.
Here’s another interesting point though in this story, about 80% of these things remain accusations. Whether this is because they cannot be proven or because they are accusations made as part of a vindictive dog pile I’m not sure, but it seems the concept of innocent until proven guilty is falling by the wayside. I’m reminded of the play The Crucible, a play that served as a send-up of McCarthyism by way of the Salem Witch Trials. As the threat of witchcraft spreads through the town, more and more people accuse other people of being in chaoots with The Devil. But many of these accusations against others are to either deflect from the accuser’s own sins, or to destroy the accused for a more personal slight. One of the major points in the end is that testimony is all the evidence that exists against the main character and he is eventually hanged without objectively having received a fair trial.
I don’t know why, but I feel a disclaimer is needed. This is not to imply that all who are accused and have not admitted are demonstrably innocent. Again, the primary issue I have is the disregard for the concept “innocent until proven guilty”. It appears this is starting to reach the point where accusation is conviction. Now, the point was raised to me that the reason these people are being let go before the case really develops is because of the lawsuits the company risks by retaining the accused should the court of public opinion turn irrevocably against him (or her…remember, three months ago there was an awareness campaign about -men- getting harassed.), but that only speaks even more to the idea that accusations are becoming convictions.
To disagree with the idea that accusations are not convictions is quickly becoming socially dangerous. it seems (and I’ve seen several instances) where one will immediately think the worst of someone who simply disagrees with them. So apparently what one is capable of is dependent on their political opinion. Think of the coverage of a mass shooting. On the left, you will see a very different reaction to an act of violence carried out by a white man (especially if he used a gun) than with any other situation and the right finds itself talking about fighting evil wherever it is (most of these do happen in places where civilian carry isn’t permitted, but that is for another discussion.) Contrast this to the left’s coverage of the NYC terror attack this past year. Not much went on about it, Cenk Ugyr went on a rant about how even Buddhists are capable of evil and that only the right fixates on if he is black or white.[ii] Conversely, those on the right had a conniption. The immigrant ban argument was reheated and thrown onto the wall but eventually both calmed down. When you realize that evil is universal, that it is not a political problem but a philosophical one, you are left with actually breaking down what happened in the incident. Which gets into a more practical discussion. This is apparently very difficult for many Americans, given the political climate that exists today. William Lane Craig, in his book, On Guard noticed that those who do not have a very strong argument of their own are the first to resort to ad hominem and personal attacks, sometimes making those pedantic games the beginning, middle and end of their argument. (Craig)[iii] This fighting style thrives on the idea that the other person is evil so of course he’d hold such a distasteful, bigoted, homophobic, fascist belief, such as “You might be wrong, it doesn’t work the way you say it does”
Accepting that evil is universal renders any personal attacks on political opponents useless. We’ve already seen that sexual assault and harassment, as evil is one to do, transcends political lines and here we see the difference between ignorance and stupidity. Ignorance is to believe something without evidence to the contrary, stupidity is to believe something opposite the evidence. Believe evil exists solely in the worldviews that aren’t yours if you wish. But every day you will find yourself demonstrably wrong, and the answer to “who could’ve done this” remains, objectively “everyone”
One last point to the question “Who could’ve done this “. It seems the one thing that truly holds people back from accepting the presence of evil in our world is that being able to suggest that it’s out there satisfies three desires and perhaps a fourth. The first is to be able to say you are fighting something, the second is to be able to maintain some sense of control over something like evil. The third is to simplify a problem to the point where expansion seems meaningless (Evil exists, it’s in those people). The fourth “desire” is more of a defense mechanism. Were one to say that everyone is capable of evil, they can only be consistent if they include themselves in that pool. Worse yet, they make an objective statement that condemns themselves, but more egregiously, those around them. This kind of judgement comes not from deciding that those on the other side are flawed, but that those on your side could be acting out of anger, bitterness and or hatred. You might be judged as “negative”, “arrogant” or “cynical” the instant you decide that political alliances shouldn’t override behavior.
“I didn’t think this could happen here”: This happens after every mass shooting. From Littleton, Colorado to Blacksburg, Virginia, to Newtown, Connecticut, invariably, you find people who were convinced that evil would never visit their little burg. It’d be in the big cities like Atlanta, St. Louis, Baltimore and Detroit, but couldn’t possibly happen in unknown Newtown, Connecticut (You thought the city was also called “Sandy Hook”, didn’t you?). The simple question that destroys this idea that it can’t happen here is “why?” Why could it not happen in small towns? This question conflates unlikely with impossible. By the exact same token, what makes anyone incapable of sexual assault or harassment? Nothing. It may be tempting to compartmentalize various crimes; to say it takes a special kind of person to commit murder and a different kind of person to commit sexual assault. Really, all it takes are the right conditions. Bryan Cranston noted, in his preparation for the role of Breaking Bad protagonist Walter White, that one can take the demurest, calm, gentle person in the world, put them in the right conditions and they can instantly become dangerous.
Before we continue, we need to reiterate that just because someone is accused of sexual assault or harassment does not make them guilty of the same. There is a very hands-off but mouths open approach to the outrage in this wave. People seem to say “I’m happy more people are coming out with their stories”, but don’t seem to think further beyond that. Let’s work through a few problems that go beyond step 1. Starting with the question that will lose most of the readership that makes it this far.
What if the accuser is lying? We’ve covered the Crucible analogy and it still stands, there are a growing number of cases, especially on college campuses (Mattress Girl, UVA being the most high-profile, along with the cases Martha MaCallum discussed in her excellent investigative reporting in 2016), where an accusation of rape is made to hide regret of a consensual encounter or as a weapon against a rival. In knowing that these claims can’t be definitely proven, the claim of “rapist” will destroy the accused before there is a chance to fight back.
To question the accuser is described, by third-wave feminists mainly, as “blaming the victim”, “Condoning assault” and the old standby “misogynistic”. Keep in mind however, that accused and convicted are not synonyms. They must be investigated. Ask these people to apply their logic to themselves and a whole litany of conditions will arise: “That’ll never happen”, “I’m sure I’d be able to fight it”, “That’s different, I’m not famous” among many others. . No, I do not discount third-wave feminists as extremists because a) why would I and b) because they are definitely not a fringe group on this issue. We’ve come dangerously close to the symbol of this wave, the Twitter hashtag “Metoo” becoming a weapon to blame all men for creating this atmosphere. (Willhelm)[iv]
“We need to do something now to make sure this never happens again”: We are just getting to this stage in the sexual harassment argument, but let’s lay the groundwork as this is largely the spirit of the reactionary wave that birthed it. This phrase has been used to justify all kinds of inanities. We’re going to get both political and tactical here, but bear with me. This, N.T. Wright notes, is the result of a reactive, immature culture. The kind that projects the kind of evil we claim to be against upon those who disagree with the way we go about challenging it, generating a culture of blame. Victimhood, Wright says, is a new sport as we all want to be the most virtuous that we may be above all criticism (Wright)[v] and therefore criticize with the righteousness of God even if there is not an ounce of truth to what they have to say.
Since the sexual assault conversation is really just starting to boil, there is no better example of this reactionary hatred than in the gun control argument. If you have been following the issue for any length of time, you will notice that the conversation does not change. “We need gun control now”. “Now” it seems, serves as an end-around to discuss the practicality of the laws that are always proposed (magazine capacity limits, bans on some guns but not all, etc.) “We don’t have time to talk, we need to do this, this thing right here, right now.” Almost all of the time, the ideas are so worn out, and the discussion based in “The NRA wants dead kids” that even if these people are made to stop, they will stand right where they are and tell you that you are obstructing them on their road to help the children that you obviously do not care about. (Dake-O-Connor)
The sexual assault conversation, assuming this movement sticks (which, I suspect it won’t), might improve things. Previously, this was known as the “It’s On Us” campaign, but now we have a magazine cover. (I’ll explain the cynicism in a moment) The Silence Breaker were TIME Magazine’s 2017 Persons of the Year, the ones who started this movement beginning with Harvey Weinstein’s accusers and members of the MeToo campaign. The end of the article notes that we are still in the “bomb-throwing point of this revolution” where “nuance has gone into hiding”. The author states that the movement is not at the point where it can impact true social change (Stephanie Zacharek)
There exists however, one question that must be answered.: What movement in the last 10 years has gotten past bomb throwing? The equality movement went from rioting to simply declaring everyone who disagreed with them racist. The Trump train is known for people who seem to want a war with North Korea just to say Trump wiped out North Korea. Meanwhile, anti-Trumpers routinely misuse “tyrant”, “bigot”, “homophobic”, “racist”, “Nazi”, “authoritarian”. “Hitler” and most laughably, call themselves “The Resistance” (Star Wars is a movie. You’re not the Resistance, Trump doesn’t lead the First Order. Calm down). This is not to throw any water on whether one should challenge sexual harassment or assault. That is unquestioned, one should. The issue is that when the movement gets to that discussion, considering activism’s recent history, one should be wary of what the movement might suggest. Assuming the movement, as Willhelm and others suggest it might, tailspins into declaring all men to be predators, what will come from this? Because as was discussed, it seems to be just assuming that every accuser is telling the truth. Due process exists. It’s just not attractive and requires a more practical approach, which brings us back to the main problem.
This conversation is not supposed to be simple. Some of the accusations are true, some are false, evil is universal, universal includes the writer and the reader. If these things are correct (which they are) then why does it feel like these haven’t had the effect one might expect them to have on the national conversation. The reason, I believe, is because the say that these people are just guilty and “Golly what a horrible world Hollywood is” means that the country can stick to its outrage addiction and not actually do any good with this moment in history. It is good that people are coming out with their stories. That said, in order for there to be a positive impact, stories must be verified, especially when so many come out so quickly, and with what can charitably be described as “exceptional” timing. To those without stories who have taken this as their latest social justice declaration, have any of the people ranting about this pushed for a change in the way rape is investigated more immediately after the fact and has it gone beyond the millennial standby of “raising awareness” until the damned cows come home?
From my vantage point, sexual assault and harassment is simply the news cycle for the next few months. These allegations will disappear when someone else has taken their place. Once Matt Lauer is replaced with, presumably Megyn Kelly and Kevin Spacey is killed of in House of Cards and Roy Moore loses the election, these people will go back to the same conversations they always had. Asking “how could anyone do this” after the next mass shooting/terror attack/sexual assault claim, saying “we should do something” in response to it and, when asked to think about what that something is, will call the questioner the most thematically appropriate pejorative available (Nazi, sexist, victim blamer, you know the words.). The greatest fear one can have about what started as a noble endeavor is that it will become and remain a weapon for even the most petty among us who now see that an accusation is all they need to hurt someone. The future of this either discussion demands a kind of nuance the national conversation is thoroughly unfamiliar with.
Craig, William Lane. On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision. Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2010.
Dake-O-Connor, Meredith. “Why Your Right-Wing Friend isn’t Budging on Gun Control. 6 October 2017. 5 December 2017. <http://thefederalist.com/2017/10/06/6-reasons-right-wing-friend-isnt-coming-side-gun-control/>.
Joshi, S.T. Menkcen on Religion. Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2002.
Solzhenitsyn, Alexandr. The Gulag Archepelago. n.d.
Stephanie Zacharek, Eliana Docketerman, Haley Sweetland Edwards. TIME Person of the Year 2017: The Silence Breakers. 5 December 2017. 8 December 2017. <http://time.com/time-person-of-the-year-2017-silence-breakers/>.
Willhelm, Heather. Where #MeToo goes off the rails. 20 October 2017. 7 December 2017. <http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/commentary/ct-perspec-me-too-sexual-assault-wilhelm-1023-story.html>.
Wright, N.T. Evil and the Justice of God. Downers Grove: IVP Press, 2016.
[i] Page 38 of “Menken on Religion”: “In the morning paper there is always massive and exhilarating evidence that the human race, despite its ages-long effort to imitate the seraphim, is doomed to be irrevocably human, and in my morning mail I always get soothing proof that there are men left who are even worse asses than I am”
[ii] https://youtu.be/ZKjqaxlyaV4?t=35 “The Young Turks blamed a “Right Wing Neanderthal for Manhattan Attack”. It’s a 3:54 clip. While it is true that religion has done (or at least has been the justification for) horrible things in in the last several years, he only makes this defense when the perpetrator isn’t white.
[iii] “Location 155” of the Kindle version of Craig’s “On Guard: Defending your Faith with Reason and Precision”. I don’t have a physical library, so I’m left with that.
[iv] A notable excerpt: “If every woman you know has been harassed or assaulted, then every man you know has likely made a woman feel unsafe.’ Got that? ‘Every man you know has likely made a woman feel unsafe’. This is bonkers. It is nonsense. It is quite simply untrue, and it is also unjust”
[v] On page 28 of his book “Evil and the Justice of God” Wright moves how we react to the evil around us to a more personal treatise on how we personally handle it.