Splitting the Sexual Harassment Debate
First thing: If someone had told me a month ago that Charlie Rose and NBC unperson Matt Lauer had lost their jobs, possibly careers, due to sexual misconduct while Howard Stern played the role of shocked commentator, I’d have laughed.
But it’s no joke.
Recently, we’ve heard many pronouncements in the media with respect to sexual assault and harassment cases within the entertainment and political industries. Predictably, the stories have sparked a national debate that has no doubt infiltrated all corners of our society, including the offices of psychotherapists. But what kind of debate is it? Is the media equipped to understand the intricacies of this subject?
Amid the disclosures, there are striking differences between our systems of deliberation. In the public sector/political realm, due process, democratic process, slows the roll, whereas in business it’s goodbye e-waste, farewell corporate chum. The men who misbehaved who thought they were important: they’re not. Impulsive, some might say, of the accused, but also of their judges. Decisive and just, others will opine. Meanwhile, what are therapists and others in the mental health industry saying on this matter?
Psychologist Kimberly Lonsway, research director of End Violence Against Women and cited in media reports pertaining to sexual assault or harassment, says “there is something unique about sexual assault in the way we think about it, which is pretty upside down from the way it actually operates. In so many instances, when there’s something that is characteristic of assault, it causes us to doubt it.” In making such statements, Lonsway reveals sympathy towards accusers, and casts doubters of their credibility as being in denial. That “something” she refers to: we are invited to ponder what it is, but upon pondering, to swiftly correct it.
Polemics like this lead me to ponder how limited the public debate is. It also reminds me of object relations tenets, particularly those relating to splitting, the intrapsychic defense perhaps best outlined by post-Freudian analyst Melanie Klein. In her theory, splitting is described as that which keeps separate “good” and “bad” within internalized objects (objects: parents). She did not mean good or bad in the moral sense per se, but rather gratification versus pain. And this splitting, she further theorized, seems both necessary and problematic. A child feels frustration based upon hunger, for example, and projects persecutory (or “annihilating”) anxiety onto a caregiver. To protect against the primitively inferred aggression of the object, the child introjects (internalizes) said aggressive qualities of the caregiver, and subsequently learns that he or she has the potential to do harm — harm that must be protected against. This dyadic blueprint foreshadows later dynamic relationships, including those with pronounced power divides.
This dynamic, part of what Klein described as a movement from the paranoid-schizoid position to the depressive position, informs the developing mind as it grows through childhood and into an adult life, navigating conflict, while experiencing shame, guilt, envy, gratitude, blame… love and hate. By implication, such dynamics compel restraint and secrecy, because keeping good and bad separate includes protecting good from bad, which means titrating truth because truth hurts, as the saying goes. This further explains why people use chestnut phrases like “let’s not open a can of worms”, “this is not the right time to speak of …”, or the pithy, contemporary phrase, “don’t go there”. These phrases connote fear either of truth or complexity, followed by a strategic, if unconscious bias towards reductionist thinking, facile prescriptions for one and all. Good and bad. Us versus them. Black and white. Splitting.
The acknowledgement of harm suffered by scores of women at the hands of sexually harassing men in power seems necessary and just. At the same time, the following needs to be stated: this issue is not reducible to a singular truism. The matter of sexual harassment extends beyond that of sexual assault as a strictly physical act. It entails complex psychological factors, and aged social mores that shape the responses of men and women. But we are fearful of that complexity, it seems. Garrison Keilor, the amiable, long-time host of “Prairie Home Companion”, responded to reports of his misconduct with a measured apology for his groping wrongdoing, but he also pointed out that over the years many women had misplaced their hands while posing with him for photographs. On a radio report, I heard a journalist remark that the Radio icon’s comment was mistimed, implying it might be appropriate in another context, when the public is ready for a broader discussion. Why? I ask, believing that splitting ought to be challenged: why this offhand belief that human beings are limited as to what they can organize and weigh in their minds? Why this supposition that people can’t handle a fuller truth?