The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Friday, December 01, 2017

A Spectrum

As we watch an ever-growing number of nationally known figures (NBC's Matt Lauer being a recent example) self-immolate as they are charged with sexual harassment or worse, it might be worth taking a step back and considering the totality of all of this.

Sure, there are true predators out there who use their positions of power, prestige, and celebrity to sexually harass their co-workers and others. They often use implicit or explicit threats of job advancement or termination to coerce sexual actions that are involuntary. These predators are despicable. They should be punished professionally and where warranted, criminally.

However, the notion that every accusation of sexual harassment is legitimate or that only the victim gets to define what is or is not sexually harassing behavior could invert the nature of harassment in dangerous ways.

Human interaction resides on a broad spectrum that includes both physical and non-physical contact. At one end is no contact at all—each party is simply unaware of the existence of the other. At the other end of the spectrum is intimate contact, either physical on non-physical. As we move along the spectrum, human interaction is either consensual on non-consensual. But where do we draw the line?

For example, it might be that you're sitting in a seat on an airplane and the person next to you wants to strike up a conversation. You need to work. The conversation is benign, but unwanted. If the person persists, is that harassment of the non-physical variety? Most of us would say no—the persistence of the other passenger might be irritating or even obnoxious, but not harassing.

Now let's up the ante. A man meets a woman at a social event and is introduced by a friend. She leans forward for an air kiss and the man reciprocates, touching her cheek with his. Is that "unwanted touching?" virtually everyone would say "no." So let's escalate just slightly—same situation, but the man gently touches her side and back with his hand as he air kisses. Same question. My point is that on the spectrum of human interaction, there are an infinite number of variations. Which variations are okay and which are forbidden?

Any reasonable answer is predicated on the circumstances (time and place), the individuals and their personal perceptions of human interaction, the unspoken and often ambiguous rules that govern human interaction, the degree to which one party has power over another, and the perceived receptivity of one party by the other.

Feminists argue the hashtag #believethewoman is the final arbiter of what is and is not sexual harassment. Some feminists also recognize that this might lead to false claims of harassment, but they argue that centuries of male domination are reason enough to turn the tables. I get both positions, but when false accusations (and there will be false accusations) can ruin lives and livelihoods, it is unacceptable to presume guilt and force the harasser to prove innocence. By the way, both the harasser and the aggrieved can be the same gender (case in point: Kevin Spacey).

No decent person can defend the Harvey Weinsteins in our midst or condone a Congressman Conyers who used taxpayer money to settle his personal harassment claims. These guys should be condemned and possibly thrown in jail. But not all cases of harassment are as clear cut.

Because harassment is sometimes in the eye of the beholder, it's often reasonable to step back and ask:
  • Did actual, provable coercion occur?
  • Are there multiple people making claims that are verifiable by a third party?
  • Was the alleged harasser's behavior simply obnoxious or was it threatening?
  • Was the aggrieved person's livelihood threatened?
  • Was actual damage (psychological or physical) done?
The answers to those questions should be provided before we all leap to judgement.

The editors at USA Today have it right:
... human interactions can be messy and complicated, and a national reckoning mustn't devolve into sexual McCarthyism. What are the guideposts going forward? Here are a few suggestions:
  • The punishment should fit the crime. All sexual misconduct is unacceptable, but not all of it is equal.
  • Allegations should be able to withstand thorough examination and interrogation. Anything less would be condescending, especially to women. The accused deserve due process.
  • This cultural sea change must trickle down to places such as restaurants and farms and small businesses, where sexual harassment can be endemic and allegations don't make front-page news.
  • Where the ballot box serves as judge and jury of sexual misconduct, real change will never come as long as voters place political tribalism over basic decency.
After all, sexual abuse isn't conservative or liberal, Democratic or Republican. It's just wrong.
We do want to protect those who have been verifiably harassed. But we don't want a sexual pogrom.