Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The Broken Moral Compass

“I did three movies with Harvey Weinstein, and I knew he was a sleazebag. I knew he was a vile bully and I saw his bullying up close. I saw him be absolutely appalling, not just to women but to men as well. He had very little respect for any kind of human being. He wanted his stars around him. I had heard vague rumours—I have to stress that they were vague—of doors being locked and women being compromised. I heard that once or twice from two very well known actresses, but the problem when you hear something like that is, do you pass that on? Because if it’s not true it’s awful, and if it is true it’s not your job to say, ‘Well, I wasn’t there, the door was locked, I don’t know what happened, I just heard the story.’ But I did not know, and many people didn’t know, the extent of the violence that he perpetrated on women.”
 —Actor Gabriel Byrne, quoted in the UK’s The Times (Ireland edition) on Sunday
Here is a story my mother told me many years ago about something that happened in my home town. Since it happened well before I was born, I cannot be sure I have all of the details right, but this is the way I remember her telling it. She was raised in a church that was, in those days, very strict. Certain things that are now considered just a normal part of life, like dancing and movies, were considered sinful. Needless to day, any thought of sex outside of marriage was considered beyond the pale. In this environment, the local church minister persuaded a teenage girl to enter a clandestine sexual relationship with him, using his moral authority to convince her it was “God’s will.” Despite his assurances to her, she clearly felt what they were doing was at some level wrong because, one evening when members of the congregation were invited to stand up and publicly confess their sins, she rose and told everyone about herself and the minister.

I have thought back on this story while reading and hearing the seemingly endless cascade of reports about politicians, journalists and entertainment people whose exploitive behavior has come to light. In many cases, it is the same story as the one my mother told. An older man takes advantage of a position of authority to impose himself on someone younger and trusting. To make it worse, the behavior is cloaked by his role as some sort of arbiter of right and wrong. That is traditionally a clergyman’s role, but do not politicians, journalists and artists also deliver implicit moral judgments in the stories they tell? What is striking in all these cases is the reluctance of victims to speak out and of bystanders to take note. When suddenly and dramatically revealed, the perpetrator’s actions explode in our minds with the dramatic thunder of shock and disbelief.

I have heard people argue that stories like the one my mother told me exemplify what is wrong with religion or at least with conservative religion—moral preaching is worthless because of the hypocrisy behind it. If that is true, though, then what does it say about politics, journalism and the arts that such rank hypocrisy can be found there as well? In a society where decreasing numbers of people report church membership or attendance, one could argue the media have, by default or design, filled the gap of informing us what is right and what is wrong. One only has to scan the social media sites and the harsh rhetoric directed at opposing viewpoints to conclude that politics—with its increasing dogma and stridency—is the new religion.

In all the stories of authority abused, the question that particularly haunts me is that of the silence. I refer to the silence of the victim but also to that of the witnesses and of those who suspect or have heard something second-hand. Yes, I have heard all the explanations about fear and reprisals, about not being believed or not wanting to rock the boat or just being dazzled by someone who has been put on a pedestal. There is something dark about human psychology when we form groups or teams with hierarchies. “Mob mentality” is not just something manifested by people running around in the street but can also be found in modern office buildings. Yet it is impossible to do away with hierarchies. After all, if you eliminate the hierarchy in the name of equality, you will then need someone to enforce the equality and you immediately have a new hierarchy.

I have no answers for any of this, but here are a couple of observations anyway. Thoughtful people look at what has been happening and try to come up with new rules or practices to avoid the abuses. Is that not what traditional religions were doing when they came up with the rules that new generations, like mine, found so old-fashioned, unnecessary and repressive? People laughed when Vice-President Pence spoke of his personal practice of not meeting alone with female colleagues. That will hardly become standard practice in this day and age—even if extended in the name of fairness to male colleagues as well. At the same time, though, wouldn’t a lot of people been better off if Harvey Weinstein had the same policy as Pence?

That brings me to this thought: the media narrative of workplace victimization sometimes runs worryingly close to arguing that women need to be protected, that more rules and laws are needed to solve the problem. That not only smacks of paternalism but, in the case of assault, the behavior is already against the law. In those cases it is reporting and enforcement that are the issue. What about behavior that falls short of being prosecutable? There is no quick fix because the culture needs to change, and that requires both leadership and time. It also requires a certain level of unity and good faith so that the issue is not merely political fodder. The signs of this happening are not hopeful.

One more random thought: maybe it is a bad idea to be getting our main moral guidance from people on television or in our Twitter feed.

In the end, men need to change their thinking. So do women. Men like Matt Lauer, Al Franken, Charlie Rose and John Conyers act under their own set of unwritten rules. People in general—and women in particular—must refuse to recognize or respect “rules” that are bad rather than accommmodating them just because they seem accepted in the environment in which they work. Moreover, these guys should never get a pass simply because they are part of one’s own political tribe. This is easy to say but difficult to do—especially when there is a penalty for one’s social acceptance, career or political agenda.

In a perfect world, it would not be this way. Sadly, it is not a perfect world. Insisting that the world ought to be perfect may provide some level of moral satisfaction, but it does not really change anything. What does? Focusing on what you yourself can do—or not do.

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