Some people say we’re in a “fierce new cultural moment of reckoning.”
It’s not all that new, though. We’ve seen it many times.
Generalized accusations. Immediate punishment without trial. Vaguely, sometimes newly defined crimes. People dragged off stages before we know it. Details don’t matter. Myths become facts through media repetition. All manner of often ambiguous, decades-old slivers of interaction and conversation conflated with true offenses into a single generalized evil to solemn nodding in unison.
Words no longer defined authoritatively but re-jiggered to mean whatever the speaker wants at the moment: Assault. Abuse. Harassment. Pedophile. Predator. For its infinite flexibility, the quintessential word and defining sin in a culture that’s long done its utmost to banish guilt, shame and collective conscience: Inappropriate.
The human qualities of groupthink and mob justice that gave us witch trials, lynch mobs and pogroms are back at work, embodied in an endless stream of one-sided ‘conversation.’
It’s true, the guys being hauled offstage and dropped in Orwelian “memory holes” right now are mostly famous and rich and the last to need our sympathy.
But the culture all around is what we teach and leave our children. What can we be teaching when someone makes a secret or public accusation about something years or decades later, like maybe someone touched someone’s bare back, and Prairie Home Companion disappears overnight from media and history? That de-contextualized accusations can destroy anyone, anytime?
None of this denies that sexual harassment is a terrible scourge. But the problem is that great evils get going in reaction to previous evils. The details really do matter. And they are increasingly washed over as so much is conflated. Joking and violence. Flirting and extortion. Leering and rape. Patting and attacking. Voluntary and involuntary.
“We need a conversation,” some say. But a conversation has at least two sides. And all that’s allowed seems to be a one-way stream to which disagreement seems as likely to be heard as defense of communism in the 1950s or witchcraft in the 1600s.
Revulsion at true sexual harassment can’t mean “disappearing” people from memory based on often publicly unknown complaints of wildly varying severity. The ‘shoot-first, questions-later’ ‘off-with-their-heads’ approach is moving us closer to the dystopian ‘1984’ world of Big Brother (and Sister!).
Politically, the rush to judgment spearheaded by Democratic women senators in the Franken case may actually hurt opposition to Trump as it shifts us further toward the politics of the third grade: the Girls’ Party vs. the Boys’ Party.
We urgently need re-dedication as a society to values of: 1) Due process 2) Proportionality, responses varying with specific misdeeds; and 3) Transparency across powerful institutions public and private.
New York law professor and left-Democratic leader Zephyr Teachout recently proposed a GAO (Government Accountability Office)-like independent arbiter to investigate harassment complaints in the U.S. Congress, with clear timetables, reporting mechanisms and ability to hear both sides and fit punishments to ‘crimes.’
Similarly systematic approaches to objectively evaluating and adjudicating complaints are urgently worth emulating across our workplaces, both in corporations and supposedly public interest organizations - like PBS and NPR - among the worst transparency and due process offenders.
Formal systems are always problematic and authoritarian corporate solutions seem fast and efficient but their longer-term costs to all of us and the culture we share are profound.
Stalin’s show trials and so many horrors perpetrated across history by energized mobs of self-righteous know-it-alls were also “fierce moments of reckoning.”
That doesn’t mean we want to be there. Or stay there.