Harassment and abuse
Sexual harassment and abuse accusations against film producer Harvey Weinstein have made news headlines on both sides of the Atlantic during the past week or two. Mr Weinstein has become the target of a media feeding frenzy, and most people would say “Hell mend him, he deserves it”. True, no doubt. But the still-emerging story of his fall from grace and privilege merits reflection.
The accusations against Mr Weinstein range from impropriety and ethically unacceptable behaviour to outright law-breaking. Those of us who aren’t directly involved are not entitled to judge any of those accusations, but I offer three observations. First, the accusations of felony (rapes, to be specific) are under investigation by the police, and although it’s very rare for women to fabricate such complaints, we have to abide by the“innocent until proved guilty” principle in those cases. Second, the courage of the women who’ve come forward with complaints must be respected and commended, particularly those who were the first to speak out. (I suppose it became relatively less difficult for those who followed.) One supposes all their reports to be genuine, though as we know, time can distort our memories of distressing or traumatic experiences that took place years ago. Third, several eminent women actors have told us that Mr Weinstein’s unacceptable behaviour is the “tip of the iceberg” (I quote). Hollywood is said to be rife with sexual harassment and abuse; many young women at the start of their acting careers have told upsetting and frankly disgusting stories about “the casting couch”. In this regard, Mr Weinstein is a scapegoat; according to reports he’s been dismissed from the production company that bears his name, ostracised by all the prestigious film-related organisations, vilified by the media, deserted by his wife, and left with few friends – and that’s before we know the outcome of the police inquiries. Clearly, the sins of the many are being loaded on to him in addition to his own transgressions. Even if only a quarter of the allegations against him were true he’d deserve retribution, but we need to acknowledge that he’s far from alone. And Hollywood is far from alone.
Morally unacceptable male behaviour towards women has been with us since the human species evolved, and probably before that. (Chimpanzees can be pretty rough.) In particular, men in positions of power – political, economic, social, or whatever – are potentially dangerous, not least to female subordinates, and while no right-thinking person of either sex condones such harassment, few do anything about it. For example, I’ve known male university lecturers exploit or try to exploit women students, and neither the victims nor the lecturers’ colleagues have taken action. This is a major societal problem. Some people claim that having more women in powerful positions will ameliorate it. I’d like that to be true, but I’m not sure it would be.
As a boy, I was brought up to treat women with respect. I was taught to raise my hat to them if they spoke to me in the street; to give up my seat on public transport if a woman was standing; to stand in greeting when a woman entered the room or joined my group at a restaurant table; to walk on the outside of the pavement if a woman was with me; to hold doors open for women to pass through before me. During the 1970s I was chastised by certain vocal feminists for those patterns of behaviour because, they said, I was insulting women by treating them as weak and in need of care and protection. I disagreed. Those gestures of respect helped me to resist any temptation I might have felt to harass or abuse, and since my professional post at the time gave me a position of power, there could have been opportunities.
Maybe this is an old-fashioned view, but I believe we could do worse than return to a culture in which such gestures of respect are instilled into young males as the norm. The training I was given when I was a boy went out of fashion during the 1960s and ‘70s, and perhaps the aforementioned complaints by the vocal feminists of that period played a part in this regrettable cultural shift.
It would be worse than ironic if the feminism of a generation or two ago had inadvertently exacerbated the tendency of men in powerful positions to perpetrate acts of sexual harassment. But I can’t help but wonder.