Friday, December 1, 2017

What Will this Backlash Look Like?

In the midst of a dozen or so powerful and wealthy men losing face and employment over  allegations of sexual misconduct, I have heard concerns raised by men I know who say that if this staggering pace of discoveries continues, we will soon see innocent men persecuted by false accusations.

These men of whom I speak don't view themselves as unsympathetic to women's interests in confronting sexual harassment and enforcing laws against sexual discrimination.  But something about seeing so many men publicly stripped of their jobs and honor sets off alarms for them.  

Could this be a media-fueled feeding frenzy? A witch hunt?  Femi-Nazi McCarthyism?

These men see themselves as potential victims in an environment of reckless paranoia that gives license to anyone from their past to surface with some baseless accusation and cost them their livelihoods and reputations.

When they think about a possible backlash to all of these firings, they envision a proliferation of allegations as randomly and broadly consuming as the wildfires in Northern California.  

But I see the situation very differently.  If no laundry has been washed for 50 years, and then we suddenly decide to wash it, why should we be surprised that so much dirty laundry has piled up?

Most of the accused men have admitted that the allegations against them are true, or, if they didn't remember that particular incident, they admitted that the behavior ascribed to them was not atypical and they did not deny that it probably happened.  

Most of the accused are very rich and have had hugely successful careers. They can well afford to walk off into the sunset and reflect on the condition of their souls and how they might wash out those stains. 

Yes, there have been a lot of men brought down from great heights, but so far nothing suggests a miscarriage of justice. If any of these men want to have their day in court, they can have it. But they don't want to go to court, because they've already admitted to wrongdoing and they would rather go away quietly than have all their dirty laundry aired out over months or years.

The fact that some of these men have settled matters of sexual misconduct out of court numerous times, over many years, paying the plaintiff hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars, sweeping each incident under the rug, avoiding exposure, bad press and reprisals...also means different things to different people. 

Some people see wealthy men as easy marks who are forced to shell out obscene amounts of money to greedy subordinates and lawyers.  That is the price a great man must pay to protect his reputation from random, inevitable, unseemly attacks. 

I see it very differently.  When men like Roger Ailes and Bill O'Reilly leave a trail of sexual harassment settlements totaling $90 million (paid for by 21st Century Fox) [per cnbc.com, 11/21/17], I see a conspiracy of powerful men and rich corporations (and human resource departments that serve  corporate interests) sweeping all of that dirty laundry under the bed and into the closet, doing nothing to stop sexual predation in the workplace, and financially and with tacit acceptance supporting a culture of egregious behavior that debases and disenfranchises women.

When I envision a backlash to this no-tolerance policy toward sexual harassment, I am reminded of the very recent backlash in response to all those videos on social media showing unjustified violence and abuses against black people.  

At first, white folks found it utterly shocking. A lot of white people thought racism was a thing of the past, since we had elected a black president.  But these videos clearly contradicted that assumption and showed us that racism remained a pervasive problem.  

The media began to focus on  "institutional racism," what it meant, and what might be done about it.  

But soon, racism, and specifically police violence against black people, became polarized in the minds of white folks: We were either sympathetic to the sacrifices and welfare of the police, or we were committed to the idea that black lives matter and something needs to be done to protect those lives.  

Next thing you know, the Alt Right crops up out of nowhere, entering the mainstream with a megaphone.  Anti-political correctness becomes a rallying cry for conservatives.  

Widespread gerrymandering contorts the voting landscape to favor a pro-wall Republican party. 

Trump vows to "make America great again," takes the White House, and proceeds to push back against the demographic trend of white people losing ground, statistically, as the majority in a functioning democracy.  

Trump states, erroneously,  that if it weren't for millions of illegal votes (from people of color, mostly brown) he would have won the popular vote in a landslide.  

It's a bogus claim, but it's part of a two-pronged approach to reduce the numbers of brown people in the country and to undermine the democracy which would have reflected their interests as a burgeoning majority, vote for vote.

Instead, brown people are rounded up and extradited, (as had been happening already in record numbers under Obama with regard to Mexicans).  Trump promises to build a wall to prevent more brown people from crossing the southern border, and he does his best to ban other brown people from a list of predominantly Moslem countries, even those with visas, from entering the U.S. 

A new "forgotten America" becomes the focus of media attention and political interest.  

They are working-class white people from the Midwest, predominantly white communities, predominantly men who have lost jobs that had been sent overseas.  Their local economies have been carelessly undercut by corporate profit motives.  Their retirement funds are in no way linked to the fortunes of Wall Street.  Unlike most people in the blue states or anyone with an IRA or 401k, they have no seat at that banquet of small investors, and no clear way to make a living.   

They also happen to be Republicans, and onboard with making America white again: building walls, banning Muslims, tearing apart Latino families--attacking any shift in policy that steers us away from white privilege and toward a less institutionally racist society.

Trump makes it very clear whose side he is on: He is on the side of that forgotten America. And he is on the side of the police, giving law enforcement carte blanche.

So, how do I imagine a backlash against women (for this sudden enforcement of a 50-year old law banning sexual harassment in the workplace) will play out?  

Well, first, I think that ordinary men will find the pace at which other men are being outed and ousted for sexual harassment personally threatening regardless of whether they have ever been guilty of sexual harassment themselves.  

The integrity of  the investigations into sexual harassment allegations will be called into question. (Already, we have heard the term "witch hunt"; thank you very much, Woody Allen.)  

Feminists will be increasingly vilified as over-empowered man-haters.  (That seems to be well underway.)  

We will see men organizing into new social-political splinter groups that view harassment charges as a plot by feminists to keep good guys down.  

Men will be less likely to hire attractive women, or to have a one-to-one meeting or business lunch with women for fear that they may be rapacious opportunists who will call on their lawyers from the Ladies Room.  

In short, a whole lot of guys will view women as potential threats to their livelihoods and standing in society.  

I think that's where the backlash begins. 

In conclusion, I was going to say, "I don't know how it will end," but that sounds too bleak and hopeless, even for me. I'm not all that hopeful about this, in fact, but I do believe in the good as well as the bad in people. 

I think a tsunami of a backlash could be avoided if most of the men who have been charged with allegations of sexual harassment continue, as some of them have done, to now speak truth and discourage other men from believing for a moment that they have been unfairly persecuted.

These men need to remind everyone that it was their victims--women, and in some cases, men--who have been damaged by sexual harassment--and not, by some twisted logic, the other way around.

If these men who have admitted to sexual misconduct accept the consequences of their actions publicly, and repeatedly remind other men that they have not been the victims of a witch hunt, and that their shame is appropriate and real;  if they can make other men can understand that they have nothing to fear if they themselves have not committed any real crimes against other people...

It's a lot to expect, I know: but it's also the least they could do.

If such men assume a leading role in teaching other men that they do not view themselves as having been caught up in a witch hunt or media-fueled feeding frenzy, or the work of over-empowered rapacious femi-Nazis, then maybe we could actually move forward, instead of back. 

Stand in solidarity with everyone's right not to be sexually harassed or molested. It's really that simple.

Otherwise, expect a horrendous backlash against all women that leaves no one unscathed.   


Endnotes

Alaska Airlines is investigating Randi Zuckerberg's claim of sexual harassment by another passenger.

Matt Lauer's patterns of sexual harassment was "the result of a two-month investigation by "Variety"; the cause of his dismissal from NBC was a detailed complaint from another NBC employee who met with NBC's HR department. On 11/30/17, Matt Lauer admitted to sexual misconduct and apologized. 

The Senate Ethics Committee has opened a preliminary inquiry into the allegations against Sen. Al Franken [Huffington Post, 11/30/17].

The House Ethics Committee is investigating allegations of sexual harassment against Rep. John Conyers. [Susan Davis, All Things Considered, NPR, 11/27/17]

UVA is investigating sexual harassment allegations against an English Professor. [Nick Anderson, Washington Post, 11/27/17]

Allegations against Sen. Moore were investigated by two staff members of the Washington Post. 

As part of a coordinated effort by a right-wing group, n activist tried to embarrass [discredit] the Washington Post with a false sexual harassment accusation against Sen. Moore. [USA Today, William Cummings, 11/27/17]





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