What We’ve Learned From The Great Sexual Harassment Awakening Of 2017

What We’ve Learned From The Great Sexual Harassment Awakening Of 2017

The moral reform movement on sexual harassment has veered into predictable overkill, but it's worth defending the original phenomenon.
Robert Tracinski
By

This is the time of the year I usually count down the top five stories of the year, looking back at the big events of 2017 and revisiting what I’ve written about them. At number five is a story that is not really about politics, since it spans party lines and ideology. It’s more a story about a moral reform movement: the sudden unwillingness to tolerate the 2017 version of the Hollywood “casting couch” and its many equivalents that were apparently common in politics and the media.

Some are calling this the Great Sexual Harassment Panic of 2017, but I think that’s slightly premature. The term “panic” implies that it will go too far and be applied unjustly, and Claire Berlinski gives us good reason to believe that such a “warlock hunt”—the equivalent for men of a witch hunt—is likely. Read the short version at USA Today or a longer version, where she points out the dangerous arbitrariness of the #MeToo anti-harassment campaign. “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.”

Emily Yoffe expresses similar concerns, citing a cautionary tale she has already written extensively about: the hysteria over the alleged campus rape “epidemic.”

Among the principles and policies that have become entrenched at schools—and are now spilling out into the wider world—are the beliefs that accusers are virtually always telling the truth; that the urgency to take action is more important than fair procedures; that we shouldn’t make distinctions between criminal acts and boorishness; and that predatory male behavior is ubiquitous. These beliefs have resulted in many campus cases in which the accused was treated with fundamental unfairness, spawning a legal subspecialty of suing schools on behalf of these young men. Examining what happened on campuses shows where the politics and social rules of interaction between the sexes might be headed—and how to avoid making the same mistakes on a larger scale.

I have to admit that the case against Sen. Al Franken was rather thin, and he seemed to be sacrificed mostly to keep fellow Democrats from losing the moral high ground against Roy Moore. Or consider how Garrison Keillor has been totally expunged by Minnesota Public Radio, like a disgraced commissar airbrushed out of old Soviet photographs, without even any public explanation.

The moment it became clear this is now a full-blown moral panic was when ABC summarily cancelled “The Great America Baking Show,” the American spin-off of a BBC baking competition, because of sexual misconduct allegations against one of the judges, pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini. I could see wanting to put the skids under Iuzzini, and the show could easily continue next season without him. Yet rather than air any of the episodes already filmed for this season, ABC decided it would also punish all of the show’s competitors, not to mention its fans.

This inevitable and predictable overkill puts me in the odd position of wanting to defend the original phenomenon. The original offenses that touched off this round of cultural self-examination were not ill-defined or ambiguous. Run down the list of accusations against Harvey Weinstein and you can’t escape the conclusion that he was a monster who used sexual harassment and assault as a way of asserting a sense of power and imposing humiliation on his victims.

You’ll notice that many of the men who have been accused have basically owned up to it. Louis C.K. issued a groveling apology that begins, “These stories are true.” Celebrity chef Mario Batali confessed, “Although the identities of most of the individuals mentioned in these stories have not been revealed to me, much of the behavior described does, in fact, match up with ways I have acted.”

Or consider the case of “Today Show” host Matt Lauer. When a network turns against its star talent for a major profit center so quickly, at the first whiff of an accusation, maybe they’re overreacting in a panic. Or maybe it’s because they already know what an investigation is going to turn up because they’ve been quietly tolerating his bad behavior for years. They know if they hang on, the story is only going to get worse. So they fire the big star because they’re trying to get out from under the wreckage as fast as possible.

The real story here is that grotesque forms of sexual harassment have been known and tolerated in a lot of places. “Everybody knew” has been a running theme, prompting the question: if everybody knew, why didn’t they do anything before now?

I can make a pretty good guess at the answer. They knew what was happening and deep down they knew it was wrong. But they were ambitious and liked to jump on a successful bandwagon, so nobody was going to fire the big famous guy just because he groped the interns. Then suddenly the culture changed, and they can’t move fast enough to dump these guys for what they knew or suspected was happening all along.

This is really a kind of moral reform movement where there were moral compromises that were known and accepted, in which bad behavior was tolerated if the man involved was wealthy, powerful, or on the right side politically. Then suddenly there was a case that was bad enough, in which enough credible accusers stepped forward to reveal truly vile behavior that suddenly, almost overnight, those old moral compromises were no longer acceptable.

That is why this feels like the throwing of a switch, like opening up the floodgates, and why famous and successful people are getting suddenly cast out onto the streets. Some of this will be a moral panic. But most of it, so far, has just been men suddenly being called to account for things that “everybody knew” they were doing.

I also have to admit that there are aspects of this saga that are undeniably enjoyable, including the massive loss of moral credibility for the cultural heights controlled by the Left, particularly Hollywood and the elite political media. I compared this to the impact of the televangelist scandals of the late 1980s.

What is happening right now has exactly the same combination of ingredients. First, it starts with an ideological and institutional establishment that promotes a puritanical creed according to which it judges everyone else from a presumed position of moral superiority—not religion, in this case, but feminism and the “War on Women.” Then there is the revelation that all along these same people were grotesquely violating that creed—in this case, by using their position of power and wealth to exploit vulnerable women. Finally, most damning of all, is the fact that the corruption was widely known and accept by people inside the institutions. As with Weinstein, “everybody knew” and nobody protested all that much until it all became public.

They wanted to accuse everyone else of being misogynists and waging a “war on women.” For some reason I’ve never been able to figure out, they got the vapors over Mitt Romney using the phrase “binders full of women.” Yet during all that time they were treating actual, individual women like dirt—and now all of that is out in the open.

If you’ve ever wondered where the left gets this idea that America is some kind of hellscape of misogyny and sexual predation on the part of wealthy and privileged men—well, now you know. They were describing the culture of some of their own institutions.

No, such stories are not limited to any one ideology. But each ideology has certain institutional and ideological blinders that helps it happen. The last two examples are particularly instructive. Taibbi and Kriss got away with their behavior for as long as they did because they had a reputation of fighting viciously for the cause, particularly when it required someone who was willing to rejecting normal standards of respectability and civility. What made them so many fans was precisely their viciousness, their willingness to berate and insult. Because surely their political enemies are such horribly evil people that they don’t deserve the protection of civilized norms. Kriss was even part of a movement called the Dirtbag Left: “a term coined…to refer to a style of left-wing politics that eschews civility-for-its-own-sake in favor of subversive, populist vulgarity.”

In other words, these writers were lionized and promoted precisely because of the characteristics that marked them out as predators. It’s hardly a new phenomenon and has even been immortalized on film. These guys are all the hippie boyfriend in Forrest Gump, who can’t help smacking around his girlfriend because “it’s just this war, and that lying SOB Johnson.”

It has been particularly gratifying to see a scumbag like Matt Taibbi get what’s coming to him.

The Left is now trying to cast this specifically as a problem with men and with masculinity. Partly, this is a frantic attempt to retain some of their lost moral high ground by claiming it on behalf of feminism. But as I observed, there’s something conspicuously off with that argument, particularly when you look at one favorite behavior among the men accused of harassment and assault.

Sexual assault, the act of a man imposing himself on an unwilling woman, is always a confession of some kind of inadequacy. The attacker implicitly assumes that no woman would be sexually interested in him if she had any choice in the matter….

That’s true of all forms of sexual assault. But how much more so for these men who force unwilling women to watch them gratify themselves? It says: ‘I am so worthless I have to physically impose myself on a woman just to masturbate.’

Don’t just take my word on this. The Los Angeles Times interviewed a gaggle of psychiatrists about this compulsion, and the phrases they used to describe it include: ‘sexual inadequacy’ and ‘regret, shame, and self-disgust.’ Not exactly he-man stuff. To be sure, the perpetrator does the deed partly to make himself feel powerful through his ability to humiliate his victim. But this in itself is a confession. The compulsion to commit extreme, illegal, and potentially career-ending acts just to gain a fleeting sense of power is a confession of how worthless and powerless he normally feels. Heck, Louis C.K. has made a whole career out of joking about his neuroses and sense of inadequacy. Maybe we should have taken him more seriously about that.

So is there a larger lesson to be learned? Perhaps, but it’s so broad and bipartisan that most people are missing it. The fundamental lesson is that our elites are always corrupt.

If the elites are corrupt, and we should always assume that they are, then we should give them as little political power as possible, subject to as many limits and checks and balances as possible. Every time we contemplate giving some new power to politicians or government officials, we should assume that we might be giving that power to the moral equivalent of Harvey Weinstein—and then we should think twice about it. Beyond government, all of our cultural institutions should be designed to give as little power to unchecked personalities as possible. For those like Weinstein who are out in the private sector, we need to leave people as free as possible to speak and publish so they can criticize and expose the corrupt elites, which is the only thing that eventually stopped him. And we should leave the economy as free and vibrant as possible so that people have more ways to get around the creeps who like to set themselves up as gatekeepers whose favor you have to curry if you want to get ahead.

Our elites our corrupt, and we shouldn’t be surprised. It is an old problem: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

All of this is to say that the only man whose reputation is notably enhanced by the Great Sexual Harassment Awakening of 2017 is Lord Acton.

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