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

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Too Much Power

I don't like Al Franken's politics a bit. He strikes me as a self-important ideologue who was far better as a writer for SNL than he was as a legislator in the U.S. Congress. I also have no sympathy for the manner in which he was cynically forced by fellow Democrats to resign (or at least, say he was going to resign) to gain some degree of political advantage for the party. That said, Franken's offenses—obnoxious as they were—were worthy of censure, not expulsion from the Senate.

Claire Berlinski discusses the broader #MeToo melieu when she writes (her article is brilliantly written, read the whole thing):
Among us, it seems, lives a class of men who call to mind Caligula and Elagabalus not only in their depravity, but in their grotesque sense of impunity. Our debauched emperors, whether enthroned in Hollywood, media front offices, or the halls of Congress, truly imagined their victims had no choice but to shut up, take it, and stay silent forever. Many of these men are so physically disgusting, too—the thought of them forcing themselves on young women fills me with heaving disgust. Enough already.

All true; yet something is troubling me. Recently I saw a friend—a man—pilloried on Facebook for asking if #metoo is going too far. “No,” said his female interlocutors. “Women have endured far too many years of harassment, humiliation, and injustice. We’ll tell you when it’s gone too far.” But I’m part of that “we,” and I say it is going too far. Mass hysteria has set in. It has become a classic moral panic, one that is ultimately as dangerous to women as to men.

If you are reading this, it means I have found an outlet that has not just fired an editor for sexual harassment. This article circulated from publication to publication, like old-fashioned samizdat, and was rejected repeatedly with a sotto voce, “Don’t tell anyone. I agree with you. But no.” Friends have urged me not to publish it under my own name, vividly describing the mob that will tear me from limb to limb and leave the dingoes to pick over my flesh. It says something, doesn’t it, that I’ve been more hesitant to speak about this than I’ve been of getting on the wrong side of the mafia, al-Qaeda, or the Kremlin?

But speak I must. It now takes only one accusation to destroy a man’s life. Just one for him to be tried and sentenced in the court of public opinion, overnight costing him his livelihood and social respectability. We are on a frenzied extrajudicial warlock hunt that does not pause to parse the difference between rape and stupidity. 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.
Over the past remarkable year, we have witnessed an ideological purge among those on the Left. Any variation from the absolutism of hard-Left dogma is met with outrage and condemnation. Suggest that possibly Islam should be held to account for the actions of its extremist co-religionists—you're an "Islamophobe." Write an reasoned essay that questions the progressive orthodoxy about women in STEM positions, and you're pilloried as a "mysognist" and then fired (at Google). Argue that the civil war and its key figures might remain in our schools and public buildings for historical accuracy and examination—you're a "racist" or a "white supremacist." Offer that possibly our current approach to healthcare is too flawed and expense and your opponents scream, "people will die." And finally, opine that the #MeToo movement is an "frenzied extrajudicial warlock hunt" and you've committed a "gender crime."

The Left's purge of impure thought (personally, I think it's closer to a pogrom) stinks of mass hysteria. It goes far beyond moral preening ("I think this way, so I'm morally superior to you") and teeters on the edge of totalitarianism. It is a manifestation of George Orwell's thought police, in which impure thoughts (defined solely by Leftist thought leaders) are condemned, and impure actions lead to a societal death sentence. It allows groups like Antifa to act like violent fascists, yet suggest that they are "anti-fascist." Free speech withers. All of it can lead to no good.

But let's return to the #MeToo subject at hand. Berlinski shows considerable bravery (in this climate) when she writes:
The things men and women naturally do—flirt, play, lewdly joke, desire, seduce, tease—now become harassment only by virtue of the words that follow the description of the act, one of the generic form: “I froze. I was terrified.” It doesn’t matter how the man felt about it. The onus to understand the interaction and its emotional subtleties falls entirely on him. But why? Perhaps she should have understood his behavior to be harmless—clumsy, sweet but misdirected, maladroit, or tacky—but lacking in malice sufficient to cost him such arduous punishment?

In recent weeks, I’ve acquired new powers. I have cast my mind over the ways I could use them. I could now, on a whim, destroy the career of an Oxford don who at a drunken Christmas party danced with me, grabbed a handful of my bum, and slurred, “I’ve been dying to do this to Berlinski all term!” That is precisely what happened. I am telling the truth. I will be believed—as I should be.

But here is the thing. I did not freeze, nor was I terrified. I was amused and flattered and thought little of it. I knew full well he’d been dying to do that. Our tutorials—which took place one-on-one, with no chaperones—were livelier intellectually for that sublimated undercurrent. He was an Oxford don and so had power over me, sensu strictu. I was a 20-year-old undergraduate. But I also had power over him—power sufficient to cause a venerable don to make a perfect fool of himself at a Christmas party. Unsurprisingly, I loved having that power. But now I have too much power. I have the power to destroy someone whose tutorials were invaluable to me and shaped my entire intellectual life much for the better. This is a power I do not want and should not have.
There an old saying, "With Power comes responsibility." The power that Berlinski describes is very real—on both the male and the female side. People can and do act like assholes—they can be "misdirected, maladroit, or tacky." They can also be vindictive, dishonest, and unstable. And yes, there is a line. The problem is that line is very, very hard to define with specificity. It has to do with power, with intent, with coercion, with malice, with threat, ... and with a laundry list of situational and temporal elements. The ability to define the line unilaterally gives any one party too much power. To paraphrase Berlinski, it's a power that no should want and no one should have.

It's looks as if other, saner voices are beginning to emerge. This from Allison Benedikt:
When I was 23 years old, my boss would look down the gap at the waistband of my jeans when he walked past my desk. I was an entry-level fact-checker at my first magazine job, and he was an older and more powerful editor. My career, at the time, was in his hands. Once, when we had finished working on a story together, he suggested we get a drink to celebrate. It was a Friday night, and I remember feeling extremely nervous as we sat across from each other in a dark bar. He was flirting with me, I could tell. The next weekend, he asked me out again. A few days later, he kissed me on the steps of the West 4th subway station without first getting my consent. We’ve now been happily married for 14 years and have three children ...

It is an understatement to say something has shifted in the culture. And that shift is unquestionably to the good. Men like Harvey Weinstein and Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer and their less famous counterparts deserve to be kicked out of polite society, ruined, and, in certain cases, indicted. Women (and men) feel safer coming forward with stories of abuse and are being believed. But a byproduct of these welcome developments has been an expansion of our collective definition of harassment. Reading accounts of others’ experiences since the great outpouring began, I’ve vacillated between horror at the abusive situations so many women have endured and alarm at some of the interactions being considered misconduct. I’ve felt a rift with many of the younger women I know, who claim to understand exactly where to draw the line between legitimate behavior and abuse and seem to view harassment as any interaction with a man that has made them uncomfortable. For all the power of the #MeToo moment, it’s been a bit bewildering too.
Let me try to be succinct. Women do not have the right (although they now have the power) to suggest that any action that makes them "uncomfortable" is by definition, sexual harassment. In fact, what does the word "uncomfortable" really mean? Does it mean "mildly annoyed" or awkward, embarrassed or tense? As humans, we encounter those feeling on a daily basis, but they are not even close to "harassment." And therein lies the problem that Clair Berlinski describes in the body of this post—the line is there, but it is very difficult to define.