harassment & the current moral panic

I’ve struggled with how to write this. In fact, the writer quoted below said she’s been “more hesitant to speak about this than I’ve been of getting on the wrong side of the mafia, al-Qaeda, or the Kremlin.” Respectful advocates and conversationalists desire to provoke no one. Our desire is to correctly handle the word of truth.

It is hard, however, in the current court of public opinion and in a judicial system that has seemingly now absorbed an additional social media branch. Angles and perspective may be omitted. Some emotion may feel only callously addressed. And sometimes we each also project individual experience onto everyone else — forgetting that varied, valid perspectives exist.

We affirm the brave and the boldly articulate. We care deeply for the still silent, who are working through the hard stuff. We also affirm the advocates who’ve worked tirelessly to root out the misogynistic aspects of current culture that exist. No one should be despised nor harassed because of their gender. That truth should be handled well.

The unsettled question this day rests with how we discern what’s true. The concern that accompanies the question is if public opinion and social media — which at this point seem exponentially quicker in determining both verdict and consequence — is what are the ramifications of the current way we are discerning sexual misconduct?

Is an allegation enough? Does it matter if one person remembers an incident differently? What makes a perspective true? And what should the consequence then be?

I’m struck by the response of both Al Franken and Dustin Hoffman this week. Both have been accused of misconduct, yet both also were very clear that they don’t share the perspective of each of their accusers. Are the men automatically wrong? Does it matter?

The sincere, tough, awkward, elephant-in-the-room question is if a woman is uncomfortable — or uncomfortable now — is the man automatically wrong?

Claire Berlinski wrote a bold piece in “The American Interest” last week; it’s tough to read. Note that she’s a seemingly fair-minded person who believes former president Bill Clinton and current Senate candidate Roy Moore are both sexual predators; she also is quick to acknowledge that even though she is personally convinced, she may also be mistaken. Correctly discerning the truth means we acknowledge we might be mistaken.

More excerpts from Berlinski: “#Metoo, of course. Women are not going nuts for no reason…

… Yet something is troubling me. Recently I saw a friend—a man—pilloried on Facebook for asking if #metoo is going too far. ‘No,’ said his female interlocutors. ‘Women have endured far too many years of harassment, humiliation, and injustice. We’ll tell you when it’s gone too far.’ But I’m part of that ‘we,’ and I say it is going too far. Mass hysteria has set in. It has become a classic moral panic, one that is ultimately as dangerous to women as to men.

… It now takes only one accusation to destroy a man’s life. Just one for him to be tried and sentenced in the court of public opinion, overnight costing him his livelihood and social respectability. We are on a frenzied extrajudicial warlock hunt that does not pause to parse the difference between rape and stupidity. The punishment for sexual harassment is so grave that clearly this crime—like any other serious crime—requires an unambiguous definition. We have nothing of the sort.

In recent weeks, one after another prominent voice, many of them political voices, have been silenced by sexual harassment charges. Not one of these cases has yet been adjudicated in a court of law. Leon Wiesenthal, David Corn, Mark Halperin, Michael Oreskes, Al Franken, Ken Baker, Rick Najera, Andy Signore, Jeff Hoover, Matt Lauer, even Garrison Keillor—all have received the professional death sentence. Some of the charges sound deadly serious. But others—as reported anyway—make no sense. I can’t say whether the charges against these men are true; I wasn’t under the bed. But even if true, some have been accused of offenses that aren’t offensive, or offenses that are only mildly so—and do not warrant total professional and personal destruction.

The things men and women naturally do—flirt, play, lewdly joke, desire, seduce, tease—now become harassment only by virtue of the words that follow the description of the act, one of the generic form: ‘I froze. I was terrified.’ It doesn’t matter how the man felt about it. The onus to understand the interaction and its emotional subtleties falls entirely on him… Do not mistake me for a rape apologist… No civilized society tolerates rape…”

In Berlinski’s search for a wise way to discern what’s true, she goes on to discuss how our culture has historically been disposed to moral panics and sexual hysterias… how we’ve become prone to replacing complex thought with shallow slogans… how prominent and damaging our increasing extremism and black-and-white thinking has become… and the likelihood of men no longer enjoying the company of women in the workplace if unproven allegations are equated with truth.

We have to find a wise way to discern what is true, friends… a way through that is honoring of both women and men — of women and men whose integrity has not been compromised… a way, admittedly, thanks to public opinion and social media, that is currently hard.