Thursday, November 30, 2017

Harass Is One Word

The Confusion in Responding to Sexual Harassment:

As accusations of sexual misconduct against famous men accumulate, the sheer quantity of dispiriting news is starting to create a confusing blur. The task of responding to sexual harassment and assault feels simultaneously more urgent and more daunting than ever.
Society is out of practice at this task; the same culture of silence that protected harassers also suppressed the public response to their crimes. Many people struggle even to know which questions to ask, and worry that if they ask the wrong ones, they might become part of the problem.
There is a temptation to simplify matters by viewing all harassers and their offenses as equally awful, or, alternatively, as equally misunderstood. But to be fair and effective, any system needs to make distinctions: to sort Harvey Weinstein from Roy Moore; and Louis C.K. and Matt Lauer from Al Franken.
The legal system, while quite different from the court of public opinion, offers principles and reasoning that we can use to evaluate each case as it flares.
It's difficult to get people to understand this, that sexual harassment, like sexual assault, lays on a continuum of seriousness and degree of damage, and is not, by any measure, a black and white issue. Sexual assault, for example, between intimates (so-called "date rape") is fundamentally a different crime than stranger-to-stranger rape. Yes, both are crimes, and yes both are rape, but the continuum regarding mens rea runs the gamut. 

Similarly, what some of these celebrities, politicians and actors have been accused of is different from what others have been accused of. But the simplistic, knee-jerk reaction to lump all of these men into the same category, to demand that the victim "automatically be believed," or to even hint at questioning the motives or veracity of the allegations, is to create a kind of black/white myopia that is setting us up for a "red scare" counter-reaction that promises to be equally as simplistic and troubling.
Until recently, all of those accused, no matter the severity of their offenses, faced the same consequences: generally none. Protected by their power and authority, they kept their careers and reputations intact.
As that begins to change, some worry that we might bungle the job. “Taking harassment seriously also requires making serious distinctions,” Jonah Goldberg, a conservative columnist, wrote recently for The Los Angeles Times. “And yet Franken’s name is routinely listed alongside Moore’s and Weinstein’s.”
Masha Gessen, writing in The New Yorker, worried we may be on the verge of a “sex panic.”
Jane Curtin, a comedian who is a friend and former colleague of Mr. Franken’s, compared the current atmosphere to McCarthyism. “It’s just like the red menace,” she said in an interview with The Times. “You don’t know who’s going to be next.”
Many of those accused have lost their jobs, but for the most part, they are not facing legal consequences. 
Many have, yes, but the distinction between sexual harassment/assault allegations in the world of politics, and allegations everywhere else, is striking. In the world of politics, the allegations themselves are politicized and partisan tribalism used to insulate the accused and demean the accusers. That Rubicon seems to have been crossed in the 2016 election and is still rampant today, in both major parties. But everywhere else accusations surface, the free market seems to be meting out justice in a much more effective manner.
As more men are tarred as bad actors, and once-cherished public figures become pariahs, imposing responsibility can feel uncomfortable, even alarming.
People worry that we are sliding down a slippery slope to neo-puritanism, or in the throes of a witch hunt for sexual impropriety. Perhaps it will turn out that we are. But social science research suggests that this discomfort is a natural consequence of shifting social norms, not necessarily a sign that the changes are going too far.
Humans are wired to conform to group judgments. Dan Kahan, a professor at Yale Law School, argued in an influential paper that we rely more on our peers’ opinions than on actual laws to determine what behavior is right or wrong.
In the famous “conformity study” by the researcher Solomon Asch, a majority of participants chose to select a clearly incorrect answer to a question rather than defy the group and cease being a peer in good standing.
Actually, this misrepresents the Asch study (along with Milgram, Zimbardo, et al). Those experiments were more about obedience than they were conformity. What they discovered is that the power of the social situation can be made powerful enough to get otherwise intelligent people to suspend what they know to be right in order to go along with authority figures and group norms (the motivation for the experiments was understanding Nazi Germany and how so many people participated in the atrocities of the Holocaust). 

It sounds like conformity, but they were measuring something much more sinister: the power and willingness of normal people to go along with authoritarian leaders, even those suspected of being illegitimate, and to engage in behaviors up to and including doing harm to others.
Meanwhile, the old norms of gender roles and hierarchies have not disappeared, and may conflict with new demands for accountability. There is no safe harbor of conformity to be had.
It would be convenient if doing the right thing were easy. But bringing long-hidden harms to the surface cannot help disturbing the status quo. Accounting for years of wrongdoing is costly, and dismantling hierarchies that fostered harm can lead, in the short term, to chaos. Now society must decide how many of those costs it is willing to bear.
Again, yes and no. I think in this privileged world of media, Hollywood and politics, whose perpetrators and victims are largely privileged white men and women, there may indeed be a "reckoning" going on.

But there has been little to no coverage of sexual assault in low income communities, among victim populations who are disproportionately women of color, and in non-glamorous industries like domestic work, fast food, retail or construction. Also missing: the male victims of sexual assault and harassment. 

These stories of Hollywood actors and Big Media celebrities doing bad are salacious but un-relatable for most people. The one thing Big Media loves to do is navel gaze, so when it's one of their own under accusation, the coverage is relentless.

Frankly, until the every-day stories of assault and harassment in the every-day work world start getting the same coverage, there will be little, if any, "national reckoning" or norm changes or cultural shifts taking place. Because also lacking in any of these lurid stories, or the lurid social media reaction to them, is the call for strengthening sexual harassment and assault prevention and education. In social media, the torch and pitchfork crowds demand heads, and then more heads, and the issues of stopping or preventing harassment/assault are ignored.

I'll defer to former congresswoman Patricia Shroeder, who said the goal of sexual harassment education should be to get men to understand that "the word harass is one word, not two." Until we start educating men, male employees in the workforce, and our boys and adolescent males still in school about what is and isn't appropriate behavior, no celebrity having their head handed to them is going to change a thing.

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