Sunday, November 12, 2017

So NOW What? On Power, Sexual Abuse and the Culture of Celebrity

A little over year ago, when I first heard about Louis CK's abuse of power, I was going to write a post suggesting he might actually be the guy able to fess up, apologize sincerely, and lead the way for other men to admit to their abusive behaviours. I'm a big fan, and he sometimes has just the right tone that he might be able to manage something of that calibre. But I didn't finish anything because how I feel is just all too complicated. At the time I only got this far,
He's right out there about difficult issues, dark issues, presented in a light way. He seems to care enough about ethics to go deep into some harsh topics. He already has bits about pleasing women and sexual boundaries in his act. Just imagine if he came clean and actually talked about it, honestly, and with humour, as only he can. Imagine how quickly he could change everything if he apologized. Live. Imagine if he were brave enough to do the right thing and turned himself in and, after the typical slap on the wrist, or maybe even a brief stint in jail, he actually added that experience to his next special as a cautionary tale about his abuse of power. 
Imagine if he openly acknowledged the childishness of suggesting, because they just laughed when he asked if he could pull his dick out, that it was in any way a consensual act. Imagine if he explored his own power and revealed that he did it because he could, because he's in a place where he's become untouchable, so he is living without restraints on any behaviour. So he can do exactly what he like; and this is what he likes. And how dangerous that place is to be because lots of people like to do some weird stuff that couldn't happen without a power imbalance.
And then I watched in disbelief, for over a year, as he seemed completely unencumbered by the weight of his transgressions. He could have carved a path through it all, one that others could follow, but he maintained his course of denial. It didn't go away; instead it just festered around him. Now, even though Weinstein is so much worse by all accounts, his actions and his company's reactions and the many women who have come forward have been game-changers. The camel's back has finally broken.

And now it's even more complicated. There's a huge variety of acts being lumped together. We need to have adequate punishments in place to deter any similar acts, but I'm not sure their lives should be completely destroyed. I raised the issue with some old colleagues who thought Louis's behaviour hilarious and fell back on, "He didn't even touch them - what's the big deal?!" My retort: "It's confinement and don't you think it could be absolutely horrifying to be trapped and forced to watch someone masturbate." But how do we manage the varied and multi-faceted reactions to this ever expanding news, and how can we possibly figure out how bad each action is and how much punishment is warranted??

It feels like we've turned a corner recently - a vitally important corner - but now we have to make sure we don't go right around the bend. We have to find a solid landing place where we can all live together. That has to be the goal.


Asking for forgiveness can be a profoundly healing process. Unfortunately, some have made apologies that are shocking in their narcissism. Apologizing only after getting caught - after getting really caught where people are finally paying attention - can remove any possible sincerity from the words as it is. But for many, their words were just about their hardships and their traumas and the difficulties in their lives that led them to trap or attack or otherwise harm people over and over without visible remorse. And that's the thing. There's still no visible remorse. The apologies have the feel of "people shouldn't hurt me too much for being stupid and sad," instead of "I am so profoundly ashamed of the harm I caused." Confession is not the same as atonement.

I think I'd like to see an apology come out along these lines, following a loose restorative justice model:
I can't tell you how sorry I am, and I will do whatever each victim needs to feel more at peace with what happened. I should be held in a room where they can yell at me and spit on me and hit me and hurt me, one at a time, for as long as they need, until they feel some personal release of the pain they've carried with them and the lack of power they felt as I threatened to destroy their career or as I blocked the doorway to their escape or as I convinced them to do things they didn't want to do just because I could. My actions were unconscionable, and I deserve whatever I've got coming to me.
Just imagine! Apologies have to come with retribution of some sort. If I break a window, it's not appropriate to tell my neighbours what a crappy day I was having when I threw that rock. My goal should not be to elicit their sympathy. I should take responsibility for any damage caused and tell them I already called a window place to fix it and a cleaner to scrub the house and yard of any slivers of glass, and that of course I'll pay for it all. The goal of an apology should be to, as much as possible, make everything as it was before that moment of recklessness. It's harder when it was years ago and the harm has taken on a measure of fecundity - if my neighbour's feet were sliced and infected by the shards of glass, and they've been limping through their days ever since, missing job opportunities and unable to partake in celebrations along the way. That takes a much larger measure of restitution.

These men need to find a way to fix it. And throwing money at it just doesn't work. It's not about paying for the cost to their mental health. It's about righting that incessant power imbalance!

ETA: For reference, check out Dan Harmon's apology for sexual harassment or Jonah Hill's apology for using a homophobic term.


BUT... If we decide the intensity of these crimes rests entirely on the effect on the victim, then we have to do something about how fragile we have become as a society. Here's the thing: There are many claims of bad behaviour coming forward that make me wonder about how quickly we sometimes latch on to victimhood. If someone says some suggestive words or brushes by a little too closely, just once, or takes a suggestive photo in an attempt at humour, should that be a career-ender? This is the claim that tosses me clear over to the wrong side of it all. But I can't stop thinking of the words of Helen Prejean:
"People are more than the worst thing they have ever done."  
We are all greater than the sum of our worst actions. All of us.

We have limits to our patience when people feel hard-done-by in our regular lives. It is a reality that some people feel slighted or triggered over behaviours that wouldn't affect most others. Since people can't always know who'll be affected by what, we often have a bit of a grace period to allow a mistake or two, and sometimes we tell people to toughen up already. So how much should the distress of a triggering behaviour determine the outcome of a trial?

I admit I have pretty thick skin.  Maybe I was born a bit feisty, or maybe it's because I was raised on these kinds of movies (it's just forty seconds long):

They taught us how to deal with "hansy" kind of men quickly and immediately. But now it sometimes feels like we have a culture full of deer-in-the-headlights claims. People are stunned and shocked and easily destroyed. In one school in Kenya, they have respect training for girls and boys that have decreased the number of harassment and assault claims. Maybe how to react to minor transgressions needs to be taught. And clearly where the line is for men's behaviour has to be reinforced repeatedly. We sometimes need to be brave enough to call out every minor action. It's not for the men to rescue us from the men. We need men and women standing up to lecherous behaviours as they happen as much as is possible.

Our mating habits are subtle and flirty, and we love a good double entendre, and that unwanted hand on Stanwyck's knee could have been wanted if it just belonged to a different man. Think of that female cop in Hot Fuzz who loves to make sexual jokes about herself. Even if we teach men right from wrong, there will always be some grey areas where the only thing that can work is being told. In some ways it's all very complex. In other ways, not at all.

I've known guys who were sexually inappropriate, guys I've yelled at and called out and maybe were even recipients of the contents of my beer glass. That's likely not a surprise to anyone who's a woman or close to any woman anywhere. Which is the problem. But then I've been able to get to the other side of that and talk to the men, first from a distance, then nearer. These are horrible acts, but in my experience, the best weapon against them, particularly when a courtroom would find it all too uncertain, is a good calling out. Done publicly, it just raises their defences. Privately, but in a crowded place with a table length of protection, it can do wonders to get an admission of, at the very least, momentary stupidity. But those are just my experiences, and it's really different for everyone. It's only possible for people not in a vulnerable position, and I've never had someone with any power over me take liberties. That's a whole other ballgame. But either way it's really creepy.

I can't quite articulate how creepy it is, how subtle and insidious it can be. How a normal guy can make it seem like this is just a normal thing you should be tolerating, enough that you almost begin to question your own discomfort. Until you give your head a shake and manage a WTF! It's hard to explain to the uninitiated who just can't picture it. I can picture it with anyone. That slight change in tone that turns a friendly conversation suddenly menacing. Anyone. But then this same person could also acknowledge an accomplishment or provide some timely words of encouragement or comfort, show some intellect or humour or warmth or courage or artistry, or a sense of integrity in other interactions, and we see the full human being again. But now anything they do is suspect. Is any kindness all part and parcel of who he is as a person, or is it an attempt to make amends, or is he setting himself up for a long con after losing a short game? Tricky.

But I fear that we're so caught up in the trope of the abuse victim going back and never learning, we fail to understand what forgiveness looks like. Any contact with or praise for someone who acted with impropriety shines a spotlight full of pity and scorn on the walking victim. This possibly underscores the ignorance both of the prevalence of this kind of behaviour and the complexity of humanity. If we write-off everyone who makes immoral choices, how many will be left?

The thing is, I've also dished out some crap in my lifetime that I've forgiven myself for. Nothing of this nature, but even small, physically weak women have their own means of abusing their power. Whenever I find myself getting judgey, I try to remind myself of some of my less honourable moments. This isn't to say these actions shouldn't be judged and found corrupt, they definitely should, but that we needn't toss a person aside because of one behaviour. Because we're all fallible and we all sometimes forget to be careful with one other. We've likely all had a moment where we've abused our power with a unnecessarily cutting remark that could have had lingering effects on the intended audience. How many of us have victims felled along the way that will never forget that one cruel statement or dismissive gesture - occasions we would struggle to remember now. And at least some of those situations were misunderstood or were caustic mainly for what they triggered.


We're living through a paradigm shift right now. After generations of people worked stridently to get the masses to recognize the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault, and to get people to acknowledge the profound impact this crime has on its victims, something shifted. Weinstein's case isn't significantly different from so many before, but he was that final straw that alerted the herd to the predators surrounding us. Instead of the very common deluge of "She liked it," "She asked for it," or "But look at what she was wearing," we heard, "That's horrible," and "This has to stop." The man's own company launched an investigation. That's very different from what we're used to. Then he came out and ADMITTED IT. Wha....?? But what do we do with the deluge of names flooding our newsfeeds?

Will we go down the path of litigation or forgiveness? Continuing to hold open court might feel vindicating, but it might act like a Treaty of Versailles that only leads us into a greater level of conflict once the charged - some of the most powerful men in the world - gather steam to retaliate. It's fantastic that we've finally hit this point where accusations aren't just dismissed into the ether, but it's a pivotal place that requires a deft hand to point us in the right direction.

Do we prosecute these crimes that happened years ago, or even weeks ago, within a culture that allowed it in the same way as we should prosecute crimes committed since the recent great transformation? I mean, I jaywalk and I watch films streaming online for free, and I know both are wrong and both are illegal, but I'm also surrounded by people who do the same and never get caught. That reality affects my law-breaking behaviour. If a crime is committed within a culture that accepts the crime as commonplace, a culture that openly looks the other way (males and females), then do we still throw the book at it in quite the same way?

There are just so many names. There's a long list out, but then more have been outed since then. Neil deGrasse Tyson's on the list. And George Takei's been named too. It seems the case that denial might be believed until more people come forward, so Takei might be safe it if didn't happen at all or if it was a one-off thing, and we'll never know which it is for sure. And these are just the celebrities. So many regular people are playing the same game. Or were.

We need to prosecute in order to change future behaviours, definitely, but I wonder to what extent we take on these older cases or less terrorizing cases - with what force should these celebrities be expunged from our world?

Do we build new jails to hold them all? Do we just name them and boycott their work, forever affecting their lives but also the lives of their family members. Or, is it remotely possible to forgive some cases regardless their witless tone-deaf apologies?


I fear we'll waste this opportunity, that we won't use the momentum of this moment to propel us towards a compassionate place of courage together. Is it the case that we're more moral for forgiving and avoiding judgement of others, or does it affect our own moral tenacity if we don't fully reject them and avoid them and all the work they've done over the decades. Should we burn all the Picasso paintings out there while we're at it?

Without forgiveness, there's no healing, no letting go. Evil acts happen when cruelty begins to be seen as normal. We have to maintain that these acts are heinous. But we don't have to destroy the perpetrators' lives and livelihood to do that.

More minor acts are not situations for public consumption and retribution. The act of running to authorities or the media at the less frightening claims, if glorified, keeps us child-like. We need to teach the correct response if we're slighted or insulted or otherwise spoken with inappropriately, that is, to speak directly to the accused, hope for an apology, and move on with life.

But for those with a track record of inappropriate seductions, or any one case with unwanted genital involvement, it's not just a matter of helping the victims to heal, but of protecting society from the menace. These are the cases that have to be brought to the attention of the courts, absolutely.

To be clear - everyone everywhere, from about age three, ought reasonably to know that contact with or showing off of genitals or demanding or even requesting either is not appropriate.  Other parts aren't always as clear, though. Raised in a touchy-feely home or culture or on a football field might think a pat on the bum isn't a big deal, and we don't want to get into a situation where we're legislating how to touch one another.  But no discussion or pictures of genitals or nudity? That's an easy barrier to erect.


And now some men are afraid to be alone with a women in case they're falsely accused. Of course it's just another way to maintain power. Of course it is. It suggests, "If you won't let me play my game my way, then I won't play with you at all!" Thankfully Samantha Bee and many others have come up with great suggestions for helping men manage that tricky minefield of mixed gender business meetings:

Some of this is really complicated. But some of it really isn't.

ETA: Bill Burr's opinion: the punishment must fit the crime. (But then he goes on to slam middle aged women - for being sexually harassing after a show, which is a problem, but also just for being old, and other stories of times he's been sexually molested.)

ETA: Sarah Silverman weighs in trying to find a landing place between anger at what a monster did to several women, and sadness and love for the friend who did these horrible things:

ETA: Roxane Gay wrote an excellent op ed in the NYTimes about Louis CK's comeback:
He should pay until he demonstrates some measure of understanding of what he has done wrong and the extent of the harm he has caused. He should attempt to financially compensate his victims for all the work they did not get to do because of his efforts to silence them. He should facilitate their getting the professional opportunities they should have been able to take advantage of all these years. He should finance their mental health care as long as they may need it. He should donate to nonprofit organizations that work with sexual harassment and assault victims. He should publicly admit what he did and why it was wrong without excuses and legalese and deflection. Every perpetrator of sexual harassment and violence should follow suit.
And my comment on the article:
I stand firmly by the position that the prison system should hold only the most frightening offenders as a means to keep citizens safe: murderers, rapists, and child abusers. What Louis CK did is heinous, but not prison-worthy. Once he was outed, and women finally believed - finally, his threat of harm decreased dramatically. People know about his abusive past, and he knows he'll be caught immediately if he ever thinks of trying it again. He should still be punished, definitely, and compensation for all victims should go without saying. I prefer the restorative justice idea presented here, but I'd go further with it. I want victims to be able to express the damage he caused, loudly and right to his face, one at a time, and then each negotiate their own compensation. We can't make people feel remorse for their actions, but we can make sure their actions have consequences. We need to create a world where any man that lacks the moral fortitude necessary to respect all people would at least be dissuaded from harassing a woman for the potential effect it would have on his life and livelihood. Absolutely. But we also need a means of atonement. Ms. Gay did a beautiful job of expressing that. Except justice can't be about vengeance; it has to be about reconciling a situation so we can continue to live and work together.
ETA: This article by psychoanalyst Avi Klein:
The sort of courage and honest self-reflection that my clients draw on for their healing is what I admired about Louis C.K.’s best work: It embraced uncomfortable feelings and uncomfortable realities. He demanded that we get to know our true selves better. Now he just wants a cheap laugh at someone else’s expense. Imagine what Louis C.K. could do with his failings if he tackled them head-on. I’m not talking about a fairy-tale ending. He will always have to live with his shame. The women he mistreated will always have to live with what he took from them. But he could give us a singular gift by helping us engage with why men take advantage of women in this way and why they double down to avoid blame and responsibility. Louis C.K. was right when he said that gratitude and joy follow sadness. And in the same way, relief, honor and a sense of purpose follow facing ourselves and our actions.

ETA: Jane Mayer's article on Al Franken "There’s a difference between abuse and a mistake."


Gyor said...

Trapped, he never did it without premission first, he asked for consent.

Even affirmative consent isn't enough anymore, you will ruin anyone's life in your fantatism.

You people are just fueling a witch hunt that will have negative reprucassions for years to come.

Its time the adults in the general public say enough is enough with the witch hunt.

Marie Snyder said...

Even Louis CK himself admits he didn't actually get consent: "At the time, I said to myself that what I did was okay because I never showed a woman my dick without asking first, which is also true. But what I learned later in life, too late, is that when you have power over another person, asking them to look at your dick isn’t a question. It’s a predicament for them. The power I had over these women is that they admired me. And I wielded that power irresponsibly." If a comedian said to you, "Wouldn't it be funny if I just whipped out my dick right now?" and you laughed and nodded, would you be okay with them blocking the doorway while they then go to it to completion because they get off on your discomfort?

If you re-read my post, you'll see that I share your concern with how we're lumping every act into the same pot. There are heinous acts out there and there are really mild acts that are being overblown. My position is clear that we have to be careful not to go around the bend with this. We have to sort out the real abuse from other acts of annoyance. And then, my final goal, is that we have the capacity for forgiveness. How is that "fantalism" and how is my desire for forgiveness for these men going to ruin their lives?