What to make of the recent avalanche of sexual harassment, indeed assault, charges against Hollywood actors, politicians, and journalists.
Yes, journalists: a famous critic for The New Republic, the head of news at NPR, an MSNBC and NBC commentator.
Of course, they are all overshadowed by the famous actor, the famous edgy comedian, and the horseback riding, six-shooting, gay-bashing, bible-thumping Alabama state Supreme Court justice who would be a U.S. senator, and happens to have a predilection for teen-aged girls.
Participants march against sexual assault and harassment at the #MeToo March in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles on Sunday, Nov. 12.
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It’s all so over the top that it almost defies commentary, or is its own commentary — like a Fellini film, it is kaleidoscopic and resists categorization.
Moreover, the cases in the news are vastly different. Some of the accused have admitted their sins (that’s what they are, not just violations of norms of decency but abuses of other human beings), while others deny them categorically.
But when 24 million women say “me too,” something profound is going on.
Are there really that many creeps in my gender? For the one thing that unites all these cases is creepiness. They are all sad, pathetic, creepy predators of one degree or another. And about half do not merely leer but assault.
It sickens the soul.
One thing is clear: In this moment, the abused feel they can come forward and tell their stories and not be disrespected, or destroyed, for doing so. And that has to be good.
That doesn’t mean that every story is absolutely true. And ours is a reactionary, and at the moment, slightly hysterical country. But clearly the culture — from the Mad Men, to the anything goes 1960s and 1970s, to the friends with benefits millennials — has helped to empower the creeps. Harvey Weinstein, uber creep, was right about that.
As a culture, we gave a pass to much bad behavior in the name of “honesty,” liberation, hipness, not being uptight. And the edge, when the pass was given, went to men.
Now we are in a period of reaction, blowback — educated by the Cosby case and the Weinstein scandal and to some extent the Kevin Spacey case. And the winds will shift back in the other direction in no time at all.
But when they do, it will likely not be because of excessive concern for due process or drawing distinctions. It will be purely a matter of national mood swing.
And that’s a shame, because it means we will not as a culture, learn, balance ourselves, or modulate. We will merely keep swinging back and forth.
I am concerned with due process. In the current atmosphere, simply making the charge of harassment can destroy a person.
I am concerned with distinctions. There is a difference between a bad joke and lewd behavior, and a difference between lewd behavior and rape, or child rape.
Most of all, I am concerned about our culture.
On one level we are so schizoid and reactive. We are childishly scandalized by the sexual vulnerability of our fellow human beings in a way that would be laughed off in France, say. And yet we have pornographied our movies, TV, fiction, advertising, exercise, sports, and youth. It’s grotesque.
We aren’t a healthy culture — and that’s the deeper reality, beyond the creeps.
The culture wars usually cut left or right. To a cultural conservative, the deterioration of the family, especially in the African-American community, or the dilution of the work ethic is cultural suicide. To a cultural liberal, the destruction of our rivers, or the denial of data and science, is cultural suicide.
But isn’t sexual harassment, and assault as normalized behavior, the result of both right and left cultures? Power, plus the right to say and do anything.
The obvious lesson is that the ability, and the perceived right, to say and do anything — celebrated from the film The Graduate, right up to the tweets and Facebook narcissism of today — is not a good thing. It is a slippery slope we have all slid down. Last week was Billy Graham’s 99th birthday. We were talking about Charlie Sheen.
Creeps are creeps. Only they are responsible for their actions. But we also have a deeper problem. WE put the creeps on the cover of Time.
People don’t have private lives anymore. Privacy has been obliterated. We have gone from a culture in which what was said in the bedroom, by lovers of many moons, is now appropriate on first meeting in a bar. We have gone from a culture in which there were some things that gentlemen and ladies didn’t think, and even spouses did not say out loud at home, to a culture in which a comedian, or an artist, or a boss feels entitled to mention the unmentionable in the workplace or a public space, and then act it out. We have gone from a culture in which there actually were ladies and gentlemen to a culture seemingly dominated by louts, bullies, predators, and neanderthals.
What in the world ever made us think this was freedom?
Keith C. Burris is editorial page editor of The Blade.
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