Smashing Pluralistic Ignorance

I log onto this blog through a page that displays my stats. There are certain old posts of mine that reliably get hits every day. Others randomly pop up from time to time. Yesterday a post of mine from two years ago called “Pluralistic Ignorance” suddenly got some hits.

I think I know why. Pluralistic ignorance is when a large portion of a community holds a particular view, but the individuals do not realize it because no one (or few) have spoken up about it. In my original post I used this example:

 You may recall that a few years ago, while I was promoting my novel Angel, I came upon a study that showed that Christian ministers, as a group, believed they were more accepting of gay rights than their congregants. Christian church members, on the other hand, thought that they were more accepting of LGBT rights than their pastors. That is to say, each group wanted to come out as pro-gay rights, but was afraid the other party was not ready to make a change. The ministers were afraid they would alienate their congregations, the congregants were afraid of being out of step with the minister.

Then something happens that causes the dam to break. Someone who in a position to influence tells a story, or some world even happens, that causes people to start talking. “You were bothered by the Confederate flag over the capitol all along? So was I. I thought it was just me.”

We’re in one of those moments with #MeToo. The power of the hashtag was that it blew our pluralistic ignorance all to smash. “You had this happen but didn’t speak up? Me too.”

Silence is at the center of this. The driving force is the acknowledgement that a cultural code of silence has prevailed that has obscured something that we always knew was happening, and always knew was wrong. There were as many reasons for the silence as there were victims from fear of losing a job, to shame, to the expectation that they would not be believed, to the fear that speaking up would lead to more restrictions– not of the perpetrators– but of the woman in the name of safety. It is not that we did not know this was happening. We didn’t realize that everyone else knew and couldn’t find a way to talk about it.

The other day, as John Oliver’s confrontation of Dustin Hoffman was trending, (I’ll come back to this) I got to thinking about the 1982 film Tootsie.

It reminded me of some of the scenes from that film. The Michael Dorsey/Dorothy Michaels character deals with casting that is based on narrow standards of physical beauty, a touchy and dismissive boss who calls her “Tootsie” (hence the title) an amorous co-worker who uses an on screen kiss as an excuse to shove his tongue down her throat and who won’t take no for an answer.

What is interesting about this is that all of the writers on this film, as well as the director, were men. Men had their blind spots, but when they tried to imagine themselves navigating a woman’s world, it becomes clear that they knew that this stuff happened, and knew that it was a problem.

Men as well as women are immersed in our culture. Billy Bush laughed with Donald Trump, not because he agreed with him, but because he didn’t know how not to.  Trump was the powerful man in the room, and you got on hi good side by joking like he did.  I think we’re starting to see the pluralistic ignorance starting to break among men. “Wow, I felt really uncomfortable when he made that joke about women. You too? I thought it was just me.”

That is thanks to #MeToo.

MeToo was aways about cultural change. It is about the culture of silence. But we are an individualistic culture, and our method of story telling is to focus on individuals rather than communities. Instead of looking at work places and talking about our intersecting relations and how we influence each other, we’re more inclined to identify individual bad actors and make examples of them.

Yet while the different cases are individual and have their own nuances, they are also part of the larger narrative. When we discuss each fallen star’s apology, we are judging it in the context of the larger movement. Is the accused acknowledging the legitimacy of, not only the specific complaint, but #MeToo as a whole? Do they agree that women have not had their voices heard, and that there are imbalances in power that need to be addressed? The apology becomes central, and we spend a lot of time critiquing apologies. “Do you believe the women?” is not just a question about the particular incident, but about all women. Often people invoke it without having actually read the particulars. It is asking what side are you on.

That is why we cheer John Oliver when he shakes his head at Dustin Hoffman asking why his accuser did not speak up forty years.  Indeed, Oliver is right. The whole point is that victims of sexual harassment are too intimidated to speak up. The point is to break the silence. We know why the accuser did not speak up. But to Hoffman, it is specific, and not an archetype.

Hoffman allegedly made vulgar jokes to a 17-year-old intern and asked her go give him foot massages.  From her account, it seems as though she mentioned her discomfort and that at least some people on the set were aware of it.  Even so, it seems as though most of the people on the set interpreted Hoffman’s behavior as normal joking around.  Or if they did not, they believed the others on the set did, and therefore said nothing. The director, Volker Schlondorff, wrote an article defending Hoffman.

It’s plain silly. Just watch Christian Blackwood’s wonderful documentary PRIVATE CONVERSATIONS on the making of DOAS to check what a kidder Dustin was on the set, at all time, with everybody. Standard Monday morning question was indeed. “Did you have good sex over the weekend?” A joke, a running gag, everybody laughed at.

Foot massage? Yes indeed, he was 16 hours standing on the set (as me he never sat down), so he was tired and besides there is a line in the play about it: “These arch supports are killing me.” Dustin Hoffman, ever method acting, made it his own. Everybody gave him a foot massage now and then, on the set, amidst the chaos, nothing ambiguous about it.

As to the joke who was going to get Warren Beatty, only a teenager in her unlimited fantasy could take it seriously. Slapping her butt on the way to the car, with driver, stage manager and PAs around, may have happened, but again in a funny way, nothing lecherous about it. He was a clown, it was part of the way we portrayed Willy Loman as well — but he never played the power play. He was teasing the young, nervous interns, mostly to make them feel included on the set, treating them as equals to all the senior technicians. She may have got it wrong, confiding it to her diary then…

This is where the individual vs. community nature of the problem comes into focus. I believe that Hoffman made this intern uncomfortable. I don’t believe she “got it wrong” in her diary.

Yet I am also prepared to believe that Hoffman did not intend to make the intern uncomfortable. He was not trying to wield power over her but to be playful with her. Hewas part of a culture that said slapping a girl on the butt was a way to be funny “nothing lecherous about it.” He was part of a culture that assumed a woman would not “take it seriously.” Others in his sphere signaled to him that making a joke about having sex over the weekend was within bounds. He must have viewed it as his apologist Schlondorff did, “He was teasing the young, nervous interns, mostly to make them feel included on the set…”

Everybody laughed. The fact that “everybody laughed” could mean that, indeed, no one viewed it as a problem. On the other hand, they could have been like Billy Bush on the bus, laughing to build rapport with the stars, even though they were uncomfortable inside. But here’s the thing, he wouldn’t know the difference.

So when John Oliver shakes his head and says “Oh, Dustin” when he asks why his accuser didn’t say anything for 40 years, he is right. We understand what that would have been asking of her.

But Hoffman is also naturally wondering why he didn’t know about this before. If a man is immersed in an environment in which everyone around him is part of a culture of pluralistic ignorance, where everyone is treating this behavior as normal, even fun when they think it is not, how is he supposed to learn and grow and change? Confrontation is not aggression, it is information. The silence didn’t do Hoffman any favors either. It would have been better for everyone had his accuser felt empowered in the moment to say, “I don’t appreciate that.”

Is it fair to assume the worst about the intentions of the accused– not just that the accuser felt degraded but that he meant to degrade her? Or can we give him the benefit of the doubt, that even though she did feel that way, it was not his intent. Is it fair to assume that he would not have changed his behavior if they had been in a world where the intern felt more empowered to voice her discomfort more firmly, and if her rebuke been backed up by others?

As much as I cringe at Schlondorff’s comment that “She had a self-assured playful way herself,” I do believe his conclusion, “If [Hoffman] knew that she would be upset when he was teasing her, he wouldn’t have done it.” At least, I believe it is worth assuming that unless enough new information comes out to change the calculus.

Hoffman, in his apology, wrote  “I have the utmost respect for women and feel terrible that anything I might have done could have put her in an uncomfortable situation. I am sorry. It is not reflective of who I am.”

John Oliver took umbrage with the phrase “It is not reflective of who I am.” He wanted him to say “It is not reflective of who I am now.”  He wanted him to own it more. He wanted him to go beyond saying “I feel bad about my actions” and accept the identity of “harasser.” I don’t know if that is “who he is” or not. I don’t know him. I assume John Oliver doesn’t either.  It could be that this is an isolated incident, or it could be the tip of the iceberg. (An article in Vanity Fair about the making of Kramer vs. Kramer makes him sound… difficult.) In either case, we should broaden our focus to the entire culture that kept the intern from speaking up for so long.

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s