Culture

The Christmas Spirit

evening public ledger dec 24 1921This 1921 news story, which I found posted on a blog called Strange Company, reminded me of something odd that happened this Christmas, which I hadn’t planned on mentioning. Frankly, I’m not sure I come out so great in this tale.

I woke up on Christmas morning and as is my habit when I first get up, I quickly checked my various communications media, my e-mail, Facebook and twitter feeds. I noted with passing interest that the topic of the day seemed to be that the president had made some claim about bringing back the phrase “Merry Christmas” and this inevitably had people declaring which side of the culture wars they were on.

In the comments on one post was something from a man (I assume) with an American flag image for his picture. For whatever reason, before I headed off to enjoy the time with my family, I responded to what I thought was an a-historical appeal to tradition by pointing out that the Puritans had outlawed the practice of Christmas in the early days. Not that it matters, but my point was that we Americans have never been entirely unified in our traditions around Christmas or anything else. (The whole “War on Christmas” thing is not really about history or tradition, but about declaring what segment of society ought to be treated as the default “real Americans” now.)

By now I was enjoying a house full of kids, parents, stockings and sweets. I noticed the notification when I took my phone out to snap a picture of the cousins in their Christmas light necklaces. This elicited three responses with far more capital letters than I thought necessary.  The general themes were that America was founded as a Christian nation and that I was an ignorant fool.  His replies made it clear that it was not the specific tradition of saying “Merry Christmas” but the notion of America as Christian that was important to him.

There is something about someone condescending to you that is hard to ignore, as much as you ought to. So I responded. I pointed out that I knew a fair amount about history and that I didn’t agree with his premise, but that it was Christmas and that I had family commitments and didn’t want to spend the day arguing about what text should be on the banners in shopping malls. I wished the stranger a “Merry Christmas.” I expected that we would agree to disagree.

The next time I took the phone out there was another condescending response beginning with LOL taunting me that the only reason I was leaving the discussion was that I knew he was right. He was determined to have the last word.

In spite of myself, as the kids tried to plunk out Christmas carols on the piano, I found myself getting aggravated. “Are you arguing that we should have an official state religion?” I wanted to ask.

But I stopped myself. We had driven 14 hours to be with our extended family for Christmas. Christmas is one day a year. Here we were together, and this annoying and senseless debate was intruding. What am I doing? What should I care if some person I don’t know or respect thinks he bested me? It’s Christmas!  I should never have commented to begin with. I deleted my original tweet and all the replies and blocked the stranger so there would be no temptation whatsoever to get drawn back in.

Isn’t it ironic (don’t you think?) that someone felt so strongly about keeping the “Merry Christmas” in Christmas that he was willing to spend Christmas day arguing with strangers about it?

 

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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.

 

 

 

Yucky Framing, “Seriousness” and The Clinton Conundrum

I have a regular feature here that I call “Yucky Framing.”  I use that expression to describe a particular kind of argument, where the human side of life is defended in market terms and anything without a dollar value is dismissed as a sentimental abstraction. The New Republic recently ran an article on yucky framing, although Adam Gaffney didn’t actually call it that. The article is a review of a book called The Pricing of Progress: Economic Indicators and the Capitalization of American Life by Eli Cook. It traces the history of conceptualizing human life as income producing capital.

It’s a type of argument that many of us—myself included—often make in the policy world to this day, and that we are all very used to hearing: It just makes economic sense. In September in the New Yorker, Sheelah Kolhatkar argued in a piece titled “The Cost of the Opioid Crisis” that President Trump should tackle the opioid crisis not merely because of lives lost, but because of its economic cost to the nation—citing the $78.5 billion figure with which I began this essay. “If Trump were running the U.S. government like a business,” she writes, “as he often claims to be doing, then he would have made tackling an inefficiency of such scale a priority.”
We are accustomed to thinking… that this is how change is wrought in the real world—by convincing policy elites that this or that policy is economically rational. But as the many examples in Cook’s book demonstrate, arguments from economic rationality can obscure as much as they reveal. For if capitalism meant the transformation of land and lives into units of wealth-producing human capital, it also meant the transformation of sickness and death into a currency of wealth-reducing decapitalization. And this poses a question: wealth for whom?

Indeed, wealth for whom is the big question. Can we be expected to ever tackle the problem of poverty if we view debtors as valuable engines of wealth production for banks, and assume that what is good for the bank is by definition a social good?

One of the historical examples in Cook’s book is arguments over slavery.

A central thesis of Cook’s book is that over the nineteenth century, progress was increasingly judged not through “moral statistics” but through “capitalizing ones.” While “moral statistics” take the measure of individual welfare—through figures on, for instance, mental suffering, impoverishment or imprisonment, and disability or death—“capitalizing” statistics measure economic costs, such as the price in dollars of “lost productivity.” Reformers increasingly relied, Cook argues, on the latter to advocate for social change.

Or in my terminology: It was during the 19th Century that people started to use “yucky framing” when they wanted to be taken seriously. They started trying to convince people who had already done the emotional gymnastics to justify the morality of owning other people. Seemingly unmoved by appeals to a sense of right and wrong, abolitionists tried to argue that even if owning humans was not morally horrendous, it didn’t make economic sense anyway.

Capitalizing discourse has gotten stronger as the years have passed. In the extreme, you get episodes like the White House Budget Director unable to come up with any argument in favor of feeding homebound seniors and low-income children because he can’t see how it improves worker productivity, spurs growth or creates jobs.

Similarly, Senator Orrin Hatch finds it difficult to justify continued funding of the CHIP children’s health program, seeing sick children and their families as “people who won’t help themselves.”

We’ve become so accustomed to making the case that arts matter because they spur tourism and economic growth, that philanthropy is good PR, and that not having sick employees increases productivity that the idea of “moral statistics” takes a moment to process.

We tend to think of the pre-19th Century expression from the preamble to the Constitution “promote the general welfare” in economic terms. The word “welfare” itself has come to mean money given to people for to stabilize their financial situation. Of course, the word itself is a synonym for well-being. What would our country look like if moral arguments predominated and if our model of “welfare” was based on maximizing human health and dignity?

Today I was doing research for a speech I am writing for a client, and the theme reminded me of the 2004 DNC speech that launched Barack Obama’s national political career. When I listened to it again, it struck me that Obama used moral rather than “capitalizing” language.

This year, in this election, we are called to reaffirm our values and commitments, to hold them against a hard reality and see how we are measuring up, to the legacy of our forbearers, and the promise of future generations…

For alongside our famous individualism, there’s another ingredient in the American saga. A belief that we are connected as one people. If there’s a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child. If there’s a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for her prescription and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandmother. If there’s an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties. It’s that fundamental belief – I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper – that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family. “E pluribus unum.” Out of many,one.

This is who we are, as a nation. This is what we believe. We have a moral responsibility that is larger than our self-interest, and we demonstrate who we are by acting in accordance with those values.

Obama’s success shows that America–at least a large part of the electorate–hungered for a discourse based on a moral, not just a capitalizing foundation.

These are moral claims:

Your factory closed and you are out of work, and you have value.

You’ve been diagnosed with a serious illness, and you have value.

You have been harassed by your boss, and you have value.

You work for wages, not capital, and you have value.

You have dark skin, and you have value.

You can’t afford a lobbyist, and you have value.

Your grandmother and children do nothing to create jobs, and they have value.

Hillary Clinton could not generate Obama levels of enthusiasm. That is, admittedly, an unfairly high bar. Obama had a rare rhetorical gift. Yet, I would argue that as a female candidate she had some additional obstacles. Women are always suspected of being emotional, sentimental and un-serious. A female candidate has to work extra hard to show that she is the one who can be trusted with the 3 AM phone call of a famous Clinton ad. She has to demonstrate her seriousness.

In our culture serious arguments feature capital rather than moral discourse. But it is moral rhetoric that excites the imagination and provides a stirring aspirational message. So Hillary talked about her detailed plan for jobs, where Bill had famously told someone in his audience “I feel your pain.”

These empathetic, moral claims carry a lot of weight with voters. There were elements of the Bernie Sanders and Trump campaigns that spoke to American’s desire for a politics of human dignity rather than humans as units of capital. Trump fans liked that he claimed to be so rich he could not be bought by lobbyists and would “drain the swamp.” Sanders liked the idea that he might reset government to put their interests above those of the “millionaires and billionaires” who viewed them as units of capital.  Both Sanders and Trump were effective in associating Clinton with Wall Street and therefore a mindset of capitalization.

How all of this led to the politics we currently have is too complex and multi-faceted for my sociological ability to explain. But perhaps it is time we unlinked the association of capital with seriousness. The things that are difficult to quantify (market externalities the economists call them) are deadly serious to human beings living in this world.

 

 

Beyond Saying “Yes” or “No”: Power, Sex, Empathy and Agency

I found myself the other day listening to a podcast by Marc Maron talking about the allegations against his friend Louis CK.

It was fascinating to me to listen to this man trying to empathize and understand what it was like for a woman to be faced with an unwanted and unexpected sexual advance. The only comparable experience he had involved a male teacher who he admired trying to kiss him.

As a woman, until recently, it had never occurred to me just how rarely straight men have the experience of an unwanted sexual advance. “Of course not,” you may say, “because they always want it.” I do not believe this is true, and I think that view is part of the problem.

I remember a while back listening to an interview with Trevor Noah where he was talking about the value of diversity in the writing room of the Daily Show. They were doing a segment on catcalls on the streets of New York. Noah said he thought it would not be a big deal for women. If women on the street whistled at him and called him hot, he imagined it would be kind of nice. But the women on the staff let him know that it is terrible to be walking down the street, minding your own business, and to be catcalled.

Why don’t men get it? I think it comes down that an antiquated notion– one we would do well to be done with– that women are the givers of sex and men the recipients of it.

Let’s get this straight, because I’ve heard a lot of commentary lately that men are just awful by nature and women are virtuous. Poppycock! There are two main reasons why you’re not hearing loads of stories of powerful women groping their underlings. 1. There aren’t enough powerful women with underlings. 2. And this is the focus of this article–We are actively socialized not to initiate. (See my previous article on “making a pass” vs. “throwing oneself.”)

Because we do not usually make the passes, for fear of being seen as sluts, we are much less likely to find ourselves saying, “I thought he was over 18,” or “I thought he gave me signals…” And men, socialized to believe female sexual attention is a gift they should always want, are not nearly as likely to come forward and report to HR “she kissed me and put her hand on my knee…”

It wasn’t always this way. Consider this from The Good Man Project:

Of course, assumptions about male libido, as godawful as they are, pale in comparison to the incredibly creepy cultural ideas about female libido. One of the earliest known postclassical joke books is the 15th-century Facetiae of Poggio, in which we find the following anecdote, presented in the painfully stiff English translation:
A woman who was once asked by a man, why, if the pleasure of cohabitation was equal for both sexes, it was generally the men who pursued and importuned the women rather than vice-versa, replied:
“It is a very wise custom that compels the men to take the initiative. For it is certain that we women are always ready for sex; not so you men, however. And we should therefore be soliciting the men in vain, if they happened to be not in the proper condition for it.”
Somewhat later, in the first season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, we find this bit, described thus in the DVD package for those who don’t want to watch the video:
Larry is drifting off when Cheryl asks him, “Why am I the one that always has to initiate sex?” Larry explains that he’s always available, and all Cheryl has to do is tap him on the shoulder. Otherwise, he tells her, “I’ll just be mauling you all the time.”
In other words, it is the exact same joke, but the genders have been reversed.

A researcher who studied sexual habits in other cultures reports, “the Biwat of Papua New Guinea think women are the sexual aggressors and men are the receivers. They have this saying: ‘Of course the female is the aggressor and aggressive. Has she not a vulva?'”

And, as it turns out, women are the aggressors more often than you might think even in our culture. The BPS Digest calls it one of the 10 most widely believed myths in psychology that men are much more likely to be abusers than women.

A British survey published in 2014 found that over 65 per cent believed it was probably or definitely true that domestic violence is overwhelmingly committed by men. It’s easy to understand why – men are responsible for more violent crime overall, and being bigger and stronger, on average, men are seen as a more obvious threat. Yet official statistics (cited by Scarduzio et al, this year) show that partner violence against men by women is also a major problem. For example, The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey in the US found that one in four men had experienced physical violence, rape, and/or stalking from a partner (compared with one in three women) and that 83 per cent of the violence inflicted on men by partners was done so by women. This is not to diminish the seriousness or scale of the problem of partner abuse by men toward women, but to recognise that there is also a significant, lesser known, issue of women being violent toward men.

But that is not what our culture tells us, not what it reinforces and rewards. I was struck by this sign at a recent protest march to end workplace sexual harassment.

hollywoodmarch
This sign expresses a woman’s right to say “no” and her right to say “yes.” In either case, she is viewed as the recipient of the man’s advance. There is no sign that I can see about her right to make the first move.

Samantha Bee, in her funny PSA on how not to masturbate in front of employees assures men that their dicks are ugly and that no woman actually wants to see one in any context.

And this is totally true, right ladies?

We hear it all the time. Women’s bodies are beautiful. Men’s are disgusting. Then there are the Viagra jokes. They operate on the idea that a man’s desire to have dependable erections in late middle age can only be selfish. It’s selfish because sex is something men get and women give. The jokes don’t work if you envision male sexual function as something that is mutually beneficial to both partners.

Samantha Bee is right, it is easy not to masturbate in front of your employees, and a lot of the behavior we’ve heard lately is reported because it is so disgusting and outrageous. No one wants to be confronted with sex when they’re trying to make a serious business presentation.

DO-vy_CWkAAdU1jBut when it’s in the right context, when it is welcome, it feels good to be appreciated for your sexual attractiveness. It is nice to hear that expressed, and to have someone take a risk and go out on a limb to make an overture.  In the right context it feels good to be viewed with lust. We all want to be desired.

Put another way: To be sometimes considered as a sexual being is a natural human need. To be always considered as an object of desire is a burden.

Men don’t get enough of that. Women get too much. I think we should correct that. We need to go beyond the right to say yes or no, waiting for advances, and calling out the ones that are inappropriate–we need to start claiming our own desire and making more of the moves ourselves.

Maybe that sense of being undesirable is one of the drivers that leads some men to aggressively over-compensate.

I appreciate it when I hear someone like Maron or Noah trying to understand the female point of view. I think a lot more men are trying to empathize these days. I am optimistic that maybe the moment has come when we will stop putting the burden on women to protect ourselves, and start asking men to be responsible in their behavior.

But if some men have trouble imagining what it is like to be in our position, some women also have trouble imagining the real confusion of some of their male friends who would never dream of doing what Harvey Weinstein or Charlie Rose or Roy Moore are alleged to have done but who are still a bit nervous that some episode from their past might come back to haunt them. The difference between an “unwanted advance” and a “wanted advance” is whether or not it is wanted. There are some cases when it is clear. (She’s 14, she’s your employee and you have to threaten her, you’re considering masturbating in front of someone at work) There are others where it is not so clear. If you’re going on hair twirls and head tilts as a guide, there is some room to make the wrong judgment. This is why I am concerned about the conflation of different types of stories.

Right now there is only one question being asked: “Do you believe the accuser or not?”

In some cases–not all, but some– you can absolutely believe that an accuser is telling the truth, and also ask if there is some possibility of misunderstanding.

Tara Isabella Burton, writing in Vox, used Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure to talk about the long history of the misuse of sexual power. In Measure for Measure, a man named Claudio is arrested for getting his fiance pregnant before they are married. Sex outside of marriage is illegal in Vienna, and while it is widespread, Claudio has been sentenced to death as a scapegoat– to show that the duke is tough on crime. His sister, Isabella, goes to an official called Angelo who tells her that he will spare her brother if she will sleep with him. In her outrage, she goes to her brother.

Isabella is sick and tired of men avoiding responsibility for their actions, and in this scene she lets herself go, telling her brother it’s better someone so shameful will die quickly. “I’ll pray a thousand prayers for thy death,” she cries, “No word to save thee.”…

It’s easy, especially in the post-#MeToo world, to sympathize with Isabella’s plight — plenty of women I know, myself included, respond to each new public accusation of sexual misconduct with joking-but-not-really-joking misandry, or comments about “banning all men.” But what Shakespeare does so well is present us with an Isabella who’s totally right (a lot of the men in Vienna are terrible!) and who also, through her rage, is perpetuating the same uncompromising black-and-white worldview that got Claudio arrested in the first place…

This play serves as an important reminder that, despite some people’s idealized narrative of the “pre-women’s lib” past, people were still grappling with the injustice of sexual misconduct. Shakespeare knew that sexual harassment is made possible by sexual hypocrisy: that harassed women are rarely believed, that women are only allowed to be wives, widows, or virgins, and this is what makes it so easy to make them victims.

Overt sexual harassment is only part of the story. And sexism is not only a problem of men. We all buy into it in big and small ways.  Studies show that both men and women–including feminists– have implicit biases that men are associated with leadership and women aren’t. (You can check yourself with this implicit bias test. I came out with a “slight bias” associating men with leadership and women with supporting roles.)

We need to change our cultural dynamic so women have more agency in all areas of life.  If you look back at some of my past articles you will see all sorts of examples where women are encouraged to think of ourselves as “being” while men are encouraged to think of themselves as “doing.” It begins in childhood, where boys are praised for their efforts and girls are praised for our inherent traits. We read children’s literature where boys go off on adventures, and girls try to get home. We’re even sometimes taught that math is important because it makes us more attractive to boys. We try to “empower” girls by teaching self-esteem while we send boys off to build fires and earn medals for achievement. We’re given entirely different messages about risk- boys are encouraged to take them, and girls are warned we’re inherently vulnerable. Into adulthood, stories for men are about saving the world. Stories for women are about being OK with yourself just as you are. Publishers and agents bring their assumptions about those stories to the fore when judging work by male and female authors. We seem to picture female writers as doing it for self-gratification and men for work. Therefore men’s writing is viewed as serious and worthy of academic study, while the very existence of famous female writers of the past is erased. (A reviewer in a prestigious literary review publication recently expressed surprise that my “Oscar’s Ghost” was “not sentimental.”)

I have to admit that my own two novels reflect these biases. I found it much easier to write about male beauty from the point of view of a male character in my first novel Angel. In my second novel, Identity Theft, I made fun of how the (female) director of the film The Holiday felt it was important that Jude Law’s character be wearing a tie before Cameron Diaz’s character invites him to her bed– if he were of a lower social class it would make her a slut. Nevertheless I gave in to gender expectations in my own writing. The main female character, Candi, fantasizes about a sexual encounter with a rock star. In my initial conception, she had an uninspiring life and lots of stress and she wanted a fun adventure. I came to realize that she was coming across as not “likeable” or “relateable” enough.  So I gave her body image issues which provided a socially-sanctioned sympathetic motivation for her sexual desire. She wanted the affair to boost her self-esteem, not to pro-actively go out in search of pleasure.

We do not just need to change how men think about us, we need to change how we think about ourselves.

Sexual Harassment and the Single Story

Sexual harassment allegations continue to dominate the news. I applaud the social movement to change our culture on this issue, but there is something in our national discourse that has been troubling me.

The individual tales of bad behavior are being merged into one story. There is no distinction between transgressions, whether they are isolated or part of a pattern, whether with adults or people under age, whether in a social setting or at work, whether a rebuff was followed by retaliation or not, whether it was decades ago or ongoing, whether the accusation has been carefully vetted or is just something someone posted on social media with a MeToo hashtag. All transgressions are equal, none can be examined deeply without accusations of victim blaming, and the only remedy on offer is firing the perpetrator and permanent ostracization.

The noted scholar Mary Beard wrote in the Times Literary Supplement that she is “conflicted” on the issue of public shamings.

When I say ‘conflicted’ I mean exactly that. Part of me feels that the majority of the allegations that have followed since the Harvey Weinstein cases are probably true, and — in the absence of any real likelihood of criminal prosecutions  (even in cases where that would be a technical possibility) — a bit of public naming and shaming might be the best way of changing the culture on this (and, as I said before, changing the culture in ordinary workplaces as much as in celebrity culture).

But another part of me feels that some of these allegations are probably not true (or at least there is another side to them) — and that no newspaper account is ever going to let us judge which those (albeit minority) cases are. And those innocents have no way  of putting their side of it (at least a legal trial allows you to do that).

In a recent article in Jezebel, Stassa Edwards argues against appeals to due process or any talk of redemption for the accused. She makes the case that such talk is an attempt to sweep the problem under the rug and to return to a comfortable status quo. Certainly such arguments can be, but they are not by definition, and we should not be so quick to dismiss the idea of giving the accused a fair hearing. We need to be especially careful precisely in cases where emotions and stakes are high.

Edwards argues against a New Yorker piece by Masha Gessen, who she quotes here:

“The affirmative-consent and preponderance-of-the-evidence regimes shift the burden of proof from the accuser to the accused, eliminating the presumption of innocence,” she writes, never pausing to consider that jail, suspension or expulsion from school, or job loss are hardly synonymous, or that their long-term repercussions are the same.

Indeed, jail and losing a job are not the same. But we should not be too quick to minimize the impact of social shaming, loss of career and personal identity.

Jon Ronson, who studied those who have been publicly shamed found that years later, the shamers had gone on with their lives and assumed the forgotten targets of their public shamings had too. They’d just lost a job, what’s the big deal? But, he reported, “…we want to think they’re fine, but they’re not fine. The people I met were mangled.”

So “only a job” is not a good excuse to abandon the presumption of innocence. If you were accused of something, you would want an opportunity to respond and be heard whether in court or in the court of public opinion– whether the stakes were jail or losing your job or simply a loss of face, wouldn’t you?

Are we not sophisticated enough to hold these two thoughts at once: that these offenses represent a serious, far-reaching, systemic problem and that we need to be fair to the people who are accused as well as the accusers?

Those who have, at some period in our lives, experienced unwanted sexual advances and want change, should be the most concerned with giving the accused a fair shake. Exaggerating and conflating undermine our own efforts by making us easy to dismiss. Every example of over-zealousness provides an excuse for someone to say the problem doesn’t really exist.

We are a culture that uses celebrities as symbols in our shared mythology, much as we once told tales of the gods. Politicians and film stars are a common point of reference to talk about our dreams, aspirations and values. So the celebrity who transgresses is shunned in order to demonstrate our cultural values. Symbolically, if Louis CK’s actions are forgivable, then so are your wretched boss’s, and therefore we cannot yield.

Nor do we welcome much nuance if it disturbs the important process of myth-making. If individual cases do not quite fit the pattern, they are sometimes made to. Let me give you an example. I believe Anthony Rapp’s accusation against Kevin Spacey. Spacey did not deny it. What upset people so much in that case was Rapp’s age– 14 at the time Spacey allegedly made a move on him.

Since then, many additional accounts of bad behavior have been levied against Spacey, but they have mostly been by adults, although you would be forgiven for not noticing that. To be clear here, I am passing judgment on the accusers or saying their statements are not truthful. I simply wish to make a point about how the various cases have been synthesized in the reporting to create a seamless narrative.

Consider this passage in a USA Today article on another Spacey accuser. I have edited it to remove the name and some identifying information of the accuser:

It was July in New York and [he] was just 27, in his first major job out of college [at a theater where] he was running the fledgling film program. He was in his office one day, phone in hand, when Spacey walked in and sat down at an empty desk.

 [He] knew who [Spacey] was. Then 22, Spacey was an up-and-coming actor, playing a minor role in Henry IV Part 1, according to records.

The narrator goes on to report that Spacey groped him and became angry when he was rebuffed.

The article goes on “… he was shocked, then freaked out. Would Spacey get him fired?”

I removed the accuser’s name because I do not want to make this about him or to make it appear I am trying to minimize his experience or call his story into question. That is not my point. Rather, I have some questions on how USA Today chose to relate his story.

If you scanned the article quickly, you’d be forgiven for not noticing a few things. The victim is described as being “just 27.” The word “just” emphasizes his youth, although 27 is an adult in anyone’s book.  Spacey’s age does not earn a “just” even though– take note– he was five years younger than the other man. Note also that Spacey is described as an “up-and-coming” actor. This makes him sound notable. This is in contrast to the language used to describe the 27-year-old’s job: his first out of college, a fledgling program.

Other language could have been used to describe an actor who was not-yet-famous and who had only managed to land a “minor role” in a Shakespeare production. You might go so far as to call him a “struggling actor.” In an interview years ago about his career at that time (ironically with Charlie Rose) Spacey said he couldn’t get work and was pleased to get a role as a “spear carrier” because he didn’t want to wait tables.

It is not clear whether the victim’s concerns about being fired were his own. They were not presented in the form of a direct quotation. Was this 27 year old, who ran the film program at the theater really worried that a 22 year-old, then-unknown actor in a minor (easy to recast) role would get him fired? Was that what was on his mind? Or did he simply describe behavior that he found weird and notably aggressive and the reporter speculated on his feelings? Perhaps the writer decided that a story of an awkward and unpleasant sexual advance between two co-workers (in which the person who made the advance arguably had lower status) did not fit the growing narrative of male abuses of power well enough.

These stories get reported under headlines saying that “a new accuser” has appeared.  Six out of ten people share news stories having only read the headline, which means most people will naturally assume that the stories that follow are more of the same even if there are important differences. To people who see headlines flashed across their newsfeeds, they are all Anthony Rapps.

A person does not have to be innocent to be a scapegoat. A scapegoat is someone who is made to carry the sins of others, to take on the burden of punishment to absolve an entire group. We use our celebrities this way, as symbols. We have always used them this way. They deserve it, we feel, because they courted fame in the first place. They get to be treated as small gods, and when they fall, they take on the sins of all who shared their transgressions.

But celebrities are just people. They should be held accountable for their actions in proportion to their severity, not in proportion to the severity of the social problem as a whole. Each accuser should be listened to and judged on the basis of her own story, not as a representative of the collective sufferings of women.

Edwards writes “what’s at issue here is civil rights—freedom from discrimination in the form of harassment because of gender or sex.”

She is right. Civil rights is the issue.

We can’t be champions of civil rights without having a concern for fair treatment of both the accused and the accuser.

A Quite Interesting Question: Do Americans Have an Inferiority Complex?

When I was a Freshman in college one of my professors thought it would be clever to open his first class with a question.

“Does anyone here have an inferiority complex?”

From my seat in the back row I had the urge to raise my hand and say, “I do, but it’s not a very good one,” but because this was true I didn’t do it.

A while back I posed the question: Why don’t we have any comedy panel shows in the United States?  Panel shows are popular in the UK. They have a theme and are organized something like game shows, but the game is really an excuse for comedians to play off each other.

I wondered why the show QI in particular, which had gone through 12 seasons at the time, hadn’t been replicated with an American version as, say, The Office or Undercover Boss has in this direction or Law and Order in the other direction.

My working theory at the time was that our culture is more competitive and that a show that is formatted as a game in which the score is totally irrelevant doesn’t seem appealing. One commenter, who I think was British– or at least not American– based on his spelling of “defence”– chalked it up to different senses of humor on the two sides of the Atlantic. (A subject I’ve pondered here as well.)

What was more interesting to me were the comments posted by Americans. (I am assuming they are Americans because they used “we” when speaking of our fine nation.) One posited that our talk shows are a form of marketing, and movie stars– who only go on the shows to plug their projects–aren’t witty enough for the format. Another suggested that in America “everything has to brought down to the lowest common denominator” because we have such a diverse audience.

What strikes me is that both seem to assume that if some form of entertainment exists in England, but not here, it must be more witty and sophisticated. (You know, like Benny Hill.)

My fellow Americans, we have never been known for our lack of self-confidence. But according to Psychology Today, when an American hears a British accent, he attributes a few more IQ points to the speaker. Even, it seems, when he is making fart jokes. Why is that?

Undercover Boss and Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”

This morning I read The Guardian’s “Michael Rosen rewrites A Christmas Carol for modern age of austerity.”

Rosen, a children’s author, explained his motivation for updating Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to reflect the times we live in.  The story was a critique of the Victorian attitude that poverty was the fault of the poor, a view point that seems to have returned with expressions like “makers and takers” or the UK version “shirkers and workers.”

Readers in Dickens’s time were deeply affected by his novels, Rosen added, “by seeing how, for children in particular, poverty was being dealt with totally inadequately by Victorian society”.

Things are not really much better today, said Rosen, who is an outspoken critic of the government. “[The Victorians] had a thriving economy and desperate, widespread poverty. I see that in a sense as happening now – you see people on the telly every night telling you the economy is good while we have food banks.”

It occurred to me, while reading this, that we already have a modern version of A Christmas Carol, the TV series “Undercover Boss.”

Class inequality is the central theme of each of these tales. There would be no drama on Undercover Boss without the awareness of how far apart the world of the CEO is from that of the rank-and-file employees at his own company. The only way to show the contrasting poverty and affluence and to have a happy ending is to have the boss bestow boons on the poor workers.

Whether Scrooge or the CEO Of a fast food chain, by the end of the story, the boss’s soul is saved, his eyes have been opened and he has found compassion. He is redeemed and his goodness is affirmed. Tiny Tim gets his Christmas turkey, but he is more a plot point than a character. The rich man is the one with agency. In the end, while one worker gets a nice gift, the overall social structure remains unchanged.

Dickens’s conclusion, that we should “be nice to each other and enjoy Christmas”, isn’t really a practical solution, Rosen added, but it’s a novelistic way of “satisfying us when we look at it. Taking Scrooge through his life in a way is a great way of saying, ‘Look at how you got to where you are’, so he actually forces you to think about society instead of blaming poor people for poverty. It’s a stunning book, really.”

Undercover Boss on the other hand does none of this.  We get glimpses of the boss’s life of wealth and prestige, but if anything we’re meant to feel envy. There is no ghost of Christmas past to ask the boss “How did you get to this place that you could close your heart to people’s suffering?”

After all, the television producers need to get the bosses to agree to do the show, and to do that, they must expect that it will be a good PR move for their companies and that they will come out looking good.

Undercover Boss shifts its moral slightly. It makes a show of rewarding hard work– although a viewer can’t help but feel that the reward is entirely random. Some other hard-working employee could as easily have been featured and been gifted the scholarship and over-the-top vacation package.

By pretending, however, that these workers were singled out for their work and dedication it not only fails to criticize a social system that creates gross inequality, it reinforces the idea that hard work is inevitably recognized and rewarded and that therefore poverty is the fault of the poor.