|Execution of Robespierre and others during the 'Reign of Terror' phase of the French Revolution|
I never thought I would see the day when wealthy powerful American men who have long used their power and position to take sexual advantage of women would be both called out and called to account. But this has been happening over the past several months. And the courage that many women are showing by telling their stories is being celebrated by many in the media. The stories that these women are telling are both very sad and not surprising. Ours is a culture that allows, even encourages men to objectify women. Long before online pornography made graphic images a click away on every male cell phone, guys in locker rooms and bars were discussing what they did or were going to do or were pretending to do to women. This was considered normal back then (like last year), just as porn use is considered by many to be normal today. Setting aside the moral corrosion such ‘normal’ behavior represents, what this does tell us about what has passed for the culturally acceptable American male posture towards women is deeply disturbing. And with the many stories that are coming forward from women who have experienced everything from unwanted advances, touching and groping, to attempted and actual rape, we today are being confronted with the actual terrible costs of these deeply inculturated, self-centered attitudes towards women and sex on the part of American males of all races, and all economic and education levels, too.
I have two married daughters, and it is profoundly distressing that this is the world that they are forced to navigate. For too long, we men have behaved as if we will never be held responsible for our actions, for the way we treated the women in our life. But the astonishing drumbeat of revelations concerning yet another powerful media personality or political leader that have filled the news recently are causing many men to reexamine their past behavior. Some are doing so with an eye towards covering up past ‘indiscretions’, some are fearful, and with good reasons, of what newly emboldened women they have used might say or do. Others are realizing that just by going along with the chattered exploits of others, even if we ourselves have not made a woman feel uncomfortable, we are still part of the problem and not part of the solution. One can only hope that fathers are having conversations with their sons about how to treat women, and what is appropriate and what isn’t when it comes to sexual relationships. And one can only hope that fathers and mothers are also having conversations with their daughters about how to avoid difficult situations with men, and how to get out if one finds oneself being treated badly. For too long families have responded with shame when it comes to both the discussions and the realities, making it doubly hard on daughters (and sons) if they find themselves being pressured for sex.
The experiences of the many women who have come forward, and the many more who may still be too afraid to do so, are truly horrific. But this will simply be but another in a series of cultural blips, an exception that ends up proving the awful rule, if this is just a passing media moment and results in no soul searching and no real change in behavior. However, this reckoning is actually more difficult that the present discussion on TV, online and in print is letting on, for the simple reason that the media elites promoting this national discussion on sexual morality are trying to have it both ways. American men and women and various sexual identity groups have been obliterating moral boundaries for nearly 50 years. In our country, sex outside marriage has become ok, sex between teenagers has become ok, sex between men has become ok, sex between women has become ok, sex in movies has become ok, sex online has become ok. And yet now we are being told that this other kind of sex, the kind that makes someone feel uncomfortable, is not ok. Given the erosion of sexual morality in this country and the negation of any kind of moral absolutes that have accompanied the march of so-called sexual freedom, there are actually no moral arguments one can make to justify calling unwanted sexual advances ‘wrong’. By whose standards is this, much less any other questionable sexual behavior, wrong? The only thing that makes this ‘wrong’ today is a kind of cultural consensus. But as we have seen, a cultural consensus can evaporate in a generation, just as we have seen with the changing societal consensus concerning gay sex. Just saying. Of course even when the West had a fairly straightforward Christian sexual morality some people were engaged in the above mentioned behaviors and some men were still treating some women abominably. But at least there was a clear understanding across the culture that it was wrong and unacceptable to treat another person made in the image of God in this way. Even so, the downside of any morality is always hypocrisy.
That being said, there is something else going on that should make every man very concerned. Our legal system enshrines the notion of due process for a very good reason. There is a tendency to rush to judgment, to think the worst about a person based on what someone is saying, based on allegations, without getting to the bottom of the matter. There is tremendous and justifiable outcry when we look back and see how black men were lynched by mobs on the basis of allegations or mere suspicion. Where was the rule of law, where was due process for these men? The reason we have so many checks on prosecutors and rules about allowable evidence is to keep such travesties of justice from happening. And yet I am watching as men have their reputations destroyed, their families threatened and are fired from their positions, all on the basis of allegations. We are witnessing case after case of ‘guilty until proven innocent’, except in the case of too many, no proof is actually allowed. Clearly there are guilty men who have admitted their fault and are facing consequences for their actions. But what about those who aren’t guilty? Is it possible that there are some men who are being framed by someone with a grudge? Have we come to any kind of consensus as to what is a fireable offense and what was intended innocently? I heard one woman leader of the me-too movement say essentially that she didn’t care if innocent men got caught up in the ‘purge’ (her word). She said that this is just the price that must be paid for righting all the wrongs done against women by men. She gave the impression that she didn’t consider any men to be innocent, participating as they all do in this culture of oppression against women. It was quite the interview. It was quite chilling.
This is my concern (after we help women who have been treated badly by men get the support and help they need): If we are in a ‘purge’, and if there is no concern for due process, then any one of us men could face an accusation of sexual harassment at anytime. I have friends who faced this hell. They did nothing to justify the accusations and the subsequent disruption to their lives. Eventually and after great expense they were exonerated. But in the current climate, the accuser would be believed before me or you every time. And with no evidence. And with no corroboration. There goes my career. There goes my family. There goes my life. This is a revolution in danger of going amuck, like the one in France, like the one in Russia. It is true - no one is getting guillotined or massacred for being on the wrong side. But reckless and irresponsible charges can destroy lives. I have lived long enough to observe that just as there are bad actors among us men, there are also bad actors among women. We should continue to support women who have suffered at the hands of men and to hold those men responsible for what they have done. But let us also, in this age of Trump, not forget that fake news is a thing. As are alternative facts. And not everybody is as concerned about justice as ‘we’ are.