Saturday 15 December 2018

After President's Club, are all men to be found guilty?

Tarring all men with the same brush because of the misdeeds of some smacks of biblical retribution, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Young women working at the event, who were all selected on the grounds of being “tall, thin and pretty”, were even made to sign five-page non-disclosure agreements without a chance to read them properly, stating that what happened at the Presidents Club would stay at the Presidents Club. Stock picture
Young women working at the event, who were all selected on the grounds of being “tall, thin and pretty”, were even made to sign five-page non-disclosure agreements without a chance to read them properly, stating that what happened at the Presidents Club would stay at the Presidents Club. Stock picture

Eilis O'Hanlon

Collective punishment was once condemned as barbaric. Now, if the fallout from the Presidents Club charity dinner in London is anything to go by, it's regarded as progressive.

At that exclusive black tie event, exposed by an undercover female journalist, an unknown number of male partygoers repeatedly harassed and groped young women who'd been hired for the night as hostesses to serve drinks, including the reporter.

Madison Marriage brilliantly exposed the unsavoury underbelly of London's high society, proving that "the post-Weinstein era" is not as "post" as optimists might wish. Young women working at the event, who were all selected on the grounds of being "tall, thin and pretty", were even made to sign five-page non-disclosure agreements without a chance to read them properly, stating that what happened at the Presidents Club would stay at the Presidents Club. It doesn't take a genius to figure out why.

The backlash was immediate, and ferocious, and justifiably so. If there's one thing that the #MeToo campaign has done, it's make it absolutely clear that women are no longer willing to put up with being treated like slabs of meat. Rich, entitled men may still have huge power, but there should be no hiding place when they behave boorishly, in some cases illegally.

But what about the men who've done none of those things? There was an immediate rush to identify and punish any man who attended the Presidents Club dinner. Not just the men who'd treated women disrespectfully, or those who organised and oversaw the dinner, but any man who was there at all, at any time during that night.

This led on Thursday evening to the sacking from the UK Labour front bench of the party's business and industry spokesman, Lord Mendelsohn, who'd attended an earlier part of the dinner as head of a charity which received financial support from the event, and had not even known about the after-dinner party at which many of the worst offences occurred.

He insisted that he had seen nothing untoward, and "unreservedly condemned" the reported behaviour. In the current climate, that was not sufficient to satisfy the baying mob. A spokesman for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn declared: "There can be no excuse for anyone's attendance."

This is guilt by association, symbolically akin to bloodthirsty Old Testament stories in which wrongdoers' wives and children, even their livestock, are put to death for sins they did not commit, to appease a vengeful God.

There were 360 men in attendance at the charity event, largely from the worlds of business, finance and politics, and clearly some, perhaps quite a lot, of them are loathsome creatures still stuck in adolescence. Women were warned in advance that, for some, "it's the worst job of their life and they will never do it again". Naming and shaming those responsible is entirely proportionate.

Likewise, men who witnessed such behaviour and either thought it was acceptable, or, by their silence, allowed it to continue, should take a long look in the mirror. In every case of bullying or domination, the role of the bystander is crucial in stamping it out.

Indeed, everyone who attends similar events should think hard about whether these childish and outdated antics are appropriate any more, if they ever were.

But that's not what's happening. The actual perpetrators so far remain anonymous. It's men who were simply there who are being targeted.

Justice demands an ability to distinguish between different degrees of culpability. That distinction is being lost in the explicit determination to seek and destroy anyone who was in attendance that night, regardless of how they behaved. It's a case of guilty until proven innocent, and some men have even been publicly identified simply because their names appeared on the guest list, with no confirmation of whether or not they attended the event.

Comedian David Walliams, the UK's biggest-selling author, had his children's books withdrawn from sale at several shops in protest at his attendance, though he'd also left early after finishing his presentation on stage.

The very legitimacy of 'men only' events has been questioned, as if men left outside the civilising influence of women will automatically descend into untamed carnality.

There was an element of political bandwagon-jumping to the backlash, though that doesn't necessarily negate the sincerity of the revulsion being expressed. But there's a sense out there that because a group of men acted badly, then anything done in response to that must be right. What caused those young women to be treated appallingly was a failure to see them as individual human beings, with rights and agency. Instead they projected their lurid fantasies onto them.

Some of the reaction to the exposure of misdeeds at the Presidents Club has replicated that error by deliberately refusing to treat the men who were there according to their separate characters, motives and actions. They have simply become the collective focus for a disquieting revenge fantasy.

Just because some men are misogynistic creeps does not grant everyone else the right in return to self-righteously throw fair play to the wind.

Sunday Independent

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