Recently I wrote about my experiences growing up with guys who groped, leered, flashed me and more. Since then I’ve received many letters from women who thanked me for writing about “their” experiences. And one letter from a man, expressing regrets that I had to go through all that.
This week I’m writing about the growing tide of #MeToo stories that are toppling powerful men.
Four important questions are haunting me; questions that we need to ask ourselves if we want to fully appreciate the changes that are happening in our culture. Though a book could be written about any one of these topics, I’ll attempt a brief answer to each one.
1. Are there powerful men who have taken unfair advantage of women?
Yes! But I doubt that most of these men would have acted that way if the underlying culture didn’t support their behavior. Powerful men always “get” the girl. Whether it’s the movie hero (007), the adored occupier of the highest office of the land (JFK) or the beloved TV celebrity (Matt Lauer), the hero gets his due (money and women). Do others know and go along with it? Often they do, as was evidenced in the 2008 roast for Lauer.
2. Are we entering a new era of McCarthyism in which unsubstantiated accusations destroy careers and reputations?
Perhaps. We must be heedful of creating new injustices as we try to remedy old ones. Those who have been silenced are now speaking up; that is good. But we should be mindful of taking all accusations solely on faith. It’s now so easy for those without scruples to jump on the bandwagon, unfairly accusing or exaggerating. In today’s atmosphere, men are being publicly shamed and removed from their positions, sometimes without even knowing what the charges are or who their accusers are. Have we forgotten about “innocent until proven guilty?” Due process is a safeguard built into our Constitution that protects us from the arbitrary assumption of guilt. When we let due process slide, we are, indeed, in danger of entering a new era of McCarthyism.
3. Are we taking behavior out of context?
Probably. Behavior should always be judged within the context in which it occurred. Ignore the context, and you will not make an accurate assessment of what transpired. This is especially true when you’re trying to understand what took place from two different viewpoints (his and hers) and from events that happened in the past.
Meanings of communications and actions can be altered; soundbites can be taken out of context; recollections can diverge. Hence, it’s essential that we don’t rush to judgment, nor accept that it’s okay for men to disappear from public life, just like that. We must seek to know more before we assume guilt. And if there is guilt, before deciding on an appropriate punishment, we need to ascertain whether the behavior was analogous to a traffic violation, a misdemeanor, a felony or an action deserving of capital punishment.
4. Are we ignoring the fact that morality is a social construct?
Yes! We make moral judgments all the time without appreciating that morality is a social construct that changes over time. Washington, Jefferson, and many other renowned people owned slaves. Though we judge this now as being deeply immoral, most of their contemporaries did not. And so we need to ask ourselves, is it legitimate to condemn the actions of people in the past if their actions were fully consistent with accepted practices of the time? Now, we don’t need to go back over 200 years. In the arena of male-female relationships, let us remember that what is considered aggressive (an honored male virtue) in one decade might be considered harassment in another decade.
As a society, we have been continually widening the circle of what we view as basic human rights and to whom these rights apply. This is good. It is good that we are listening to women who have been silent for way too long. It is good that we are looking for ways to address sexual harassment complaints. But we must never lose sight of due process. We must always judge behavior within the context in which it occurred. And we must always remember that morality is a social construct that changes as we change.
©2017 Linda Sapadin, Ph.D.