We are, I am grateful to say, in a moment when the sexual transgressions of powerful men are being acknowledged and addressed. It has been far too long that powerful men have secured sex, subordination and silence from women in their orbit as a perk of their position. I wish I were confident that the tide is really turning and that such abuse will never again be the norm, but I am very conscious that Clarence Thomas has been sitting on the Supreme Court for two decades. Anita Hill has not yet been fully vindicated, not to mention Thomas’ other accusers who were never heard. I appreciate Joe Biden’s apology about this travesty, however long it was in coming.
The energy of brave women and their male allies will be needed for a long time to change the norm that sexual favors are simply a benefit of power. (I do not mean here to oversimplify the intersectional and gender fluid dimensions of sexual abuse, but I also don’t want to ignore the fundamental gender domination that is the centerpiece of that more complex reality.)
This social change may mean that, as with most big changes, we need to tolerate some rough justice. It is hard to expect that subtleties and nuances will be noted in the process, and I would prefer that we err on the side of vindicating victims rather than the side of protecting the accused, if I have to choose. We have erred on the other side for too long, often in the name of noble ideas like due process. Yet, I hope that, at some point, we can begin to appreciate that reducing people to victims and predators leaves us stuck with limited options.
We begin, in the EE workshop, to engage the deeper realities of people’s experience. At the individual level, each instance of sexual abuse (as well, of course, as other transgressions) has its own context and meaning. This is so whether the power abused is workplace power or physical power or family power. The abuse may have been extensive and brutal or only a particular occasion; the perpetrator may have been violent, threatening, enticing or confused; the victim may have suffered more or less, sought support and found it, or been disbelieved, or never have told anyone. The meanings surrounding the original situation and the meanings about the victim’s experience since the original transgressions constitute an initial story. From there, we work to transform the story from one of victimization to one of survival, recovery and even, sometimes, triumph.
This transformation of the story may involve emotional expression, re-enactment, apology, confession, confrontation, forgiveness, reconciliation, and reframing, among many other dimensions. It always involves a lot of support. It ultimately involves seeing every person in the story as more than a victim or a perpetrator. At the end, we see ourselves and others as human beings, with both flaws and possibilities. Our gross political process may not have time for these subtleties, which mostly occur outside the spotlight. In public life, we live on sound bites and move hungrily to the next story. Still, I seek to be as aware as I can be, even at this moment, that the simplistic story we hear is but the tip of an iceberg. We might press further toward bringing the larger picture into view.
In this vein, I will take the risk of saying that there are differences among the cases that have gotten our attention already. There are obviously differences in how serious or pervasive the perpetrators behavior seems to have been. The idea of “zero tolerance” makes sense as we name the offenses and identify violations. It does not, however, mean that everyone deserves the same punishment. We might profit, even in the public space of workplace violations, to appreciate how processes of apology, restorative justice, reconciliation and systemic change can serve better than rigid expressions of outrage that create only black and white possibilities.
Another big difference among the cases is that some accused perpetrators, like Roy Moore and Donald Trump, simply offer blanket denials and, for the moment at least, seem incapable of owning their transgressions or acknowledging shame. Others, like Al Franken, own at least some of their transgressions, acknowledge shame, and express appreciation for the damage inflicted on victims. This latter path eases the healing of victims, and opens doors to reconciliation and redemption that the former path makes much more difficult. These differences matter.
This is a sensitive moment in our cultural development. I am grateful for the emergence of a movement to challenge the sexual abuse that has been an endemic part of our gender hierarchy, as well as power of many other kinds. I also worry that the brittle partisanship of our present public life limits our options and obscures the openings that a richer appreciation of our humanity might reveal. I am glad that the workshop has helped me, and so many others to develop this richer appreciation and gain the freedom and maturity that our culture will, I hope, ultimately benefit from.