We are living extraordinarily turbulent political times. If the Trump presidency and disintegration of the Republican Party were not enough, we are now living through a number of earth-shaking revelations of sexual harassment. Although all of us know women who have suffered sexual harassment and assault, most, if not all, of us have been caught off guard by the number of revelations and guilt of entertainers and politicians we have liked and respected.
In a simpler time, such revelations were single and occasional. The revelations about Bill Cosby were revolting, but there was only one perpetrator. Revelations about then candidate Donald Trump were not surprising, though their negligible effect on the election was both disturbing and disastrous. Had Roy Moore been running for senate last year, perhaps we would have been less disturbing. (Who knew that pedophilia would be acceptable to so many people?) Recently, revelations have been coming one after the other. We’ve never encountered these kind of scandals at such a frenetic pace.
What’s changed? Women bravely stepping forward and saying “Me too.” When Anita Hill stepped forward to reveal Clarence Thomas’s sexual harassment, she did so alone. She was not universally believed. She was doubted. No other women stepped forward. Until recently, I don’t think I ever realized how brave she was.
A different generation is also starting to come to power. Much of my generation (I’m 53) has been trained in cultural sensitivity and acquainted with sexual harassment laws. As a young teacher 26 years ago, I remember the rancor between the sexist male teachers, and the women who retaliated against them. It was hard to comprehend. I had both men and women as friends, and we could work together and hang out together. We didn’t fight about sexism; we opposed it. Still, I learned about sexual harassment as an adult. Many twenty and thirtysomethings seem to have a hard time understanding how these perpetrators can get away with these crimes; they learned about sexual harassment as youths.
When I made a comment on BMG last night, I didn’t realize that other people were talking about moral panics, a feeling of fear and righteous indignation about a social issue.The War on Drugs, for example, was a moral panic. Moral panics aren’t necessarily independent of reality. There is no question that drugs are a scourge destroying lives and entire communities.
To be clear, I don’t believe we’re experiencing a moral panic, but our liberal response to these serial revelation has a couple of troubling aspects: 1) zero tolerance, and 2) a sense of proportion. The idea of zero tolerance began with the broken windows theory of policing. It was the basis of the War on Drugs.
There is little or no evidence that zero tolerance policies work, but the term itself is emotionally satisfying. It says something is absolutely wrong, and we will not tolerate it. Liberals have opposed zero tolerance and its unjust effects on minorities and the poor. We’ve opposed them in schools. We’ve opposed them on drug crimes. Yet we endorse them for sexual harassment? When all we had about Al Franken was Leeann Tweeden’s revelation, there were calls for his immediate resignation. One incident. Eleven years ago. The victim didn’t want him to resign. Yet we called for his resignation. Putting no statute of limitations for a misdemeanor puts it on par with murder.
Anyone can call for the resignation of an elected official. It’s not illegal, and it can’t be prevented. Arguing about its propriety is pointless. In simpler, more silent times, it seemed sufficient. It’s not sufficient now. The court of public opinion has no due process. With regular crimes, we punish criminals for the damage caused by their individual crimes, not the harm that other criminals have done with their own crimes. Is it just to punish individual perpetrators for the history of oppression that of all women have experienced?
When it comes to sexual harassment and assault, the balance of power between victim and victimizer has shifted. Silence, once a powerful ally of victimizers, has left town. It will be back. It hasn’t disappeared. But the arc of justice now bends toward justice. To further the cause, we now need a system in place that allows victims to safely lodge complaints about their victimizers. We also need a system that is fair to the accused. In the morally outrageous times we live in, that isn’t an easy or popular claim to make, but as liberals, we need to work to correct all injustices, not just those that offend us the most. American democracy rests on the rule of law as well as the will of the people.