Sex abuse allegations cannot be used as a weapon in culture wars
Good can come from the rising tide of sexual harassment claims, but only if everyone treads carefully
The last thing the current furore over sexual harassment needed was to become a weapon in the culture wars between progressives and conservatives.
Or faux progressives, who are prepared to toss a few men on to the fire on the basis of unproven allegations alone "pour encourager les autres", as they used to say about summary executions, and faux conservatives, who are so blinded by their own rival dogma that they're prepared to dismiss all legitimate outrage at the pervasiveness of sexual harassment as "political correctness gone mad".
That, though, is what has happened. Sexual harassment has been weaponised, and the armies on either side have loaded up on ammunition and dug down into their respective trenches, ready for the long battle ahead.
Essentially, so-called progressives (who are meant to be defenders of sexual freedom) are claiming that men are so feral and horrid that women cannot venture into social gatherings or the workplace without the modern equivalent of a chastity belt, and so-called conservatives (who are meant to uphold decent standards of behaviour) are implying that women shouldn't make such a fuss about sexual harassment because it might lead to a witch-hunt against good men. Both are choosing the most extreme examples to back up their case. Both are crazy.
First things first. The offences which have been catapulted into the headlines in recent weeks have ranged in seriousness, from violent rape down to indiscretions so minor that the women involved ought to be ashamed of themselves for trying to jump on the #MeToo bandwagon. Nonetheless, anyone still dismissing the torrent of allegations about predatory men as hysteria or over-sensitivity on the part of the women affected must be living on another planet.
Many involve psychologically and physically harrowing encounters with deeply unpleasant men. Dismissing them outright because some of the allegations of harassment are opportunistic and trivial, and others are only emerging years after the fact, is to misunderstand how secrecy works and how it's broken down. It always goes in stages. First come the whispers, rumours; then a few specific, but still isolated, allegations; finally the floodgates open and the sea rushes in. Once the waters level off, a new landscape is visible.
It took a long time for revelations of sexual abuse by priests to reach a critical amass. Once it did, there was no holding back the tide. It took Jimmy Savile's death for the dam to burst on revelations about child abuse by light entertainers. Right now it's happening at a rate of knots, in the wake of allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, who's been accused of sexually harassing, abusing - and in some cases even raping, though he vehemently denies those charges - literally scores of women. Since then the spotlight has been trained on many other figures, in the world of film, theatre, media and publishing, actor Kevin Spacey not least. The charge sheet being laid against him is disturbing. The alleged victims include underage boys. Currently, the British government is also under pressure to uncover what misdemeanours may have been committed by MPs in the House of Commons and to crack down accordingly. One Cabinet minister has already resigned over as yet still vague allegations of inappropriate behaviour, including repeatedly touching the knee of a journalist, whilst a 76 year old Labour MP has been thrown out of the party after being accused of sexual misconduct by a female activist 50 years his junior.
More allegations are emerging by the day. How true or serious has yet to be confirmed by investigation, though that hasn't halted those undeterred by a lack of proof from building a gallows. Labour MP Clive Lewis is being widely condemned despite strongly denying an allegation last Friday that he groped a woman's bottom at the recent party conference.
Inevitably, the row has reached Ireland as well, with allegations being made against former Gate Theatre boss Michael Colgan of inappropriate conduct and language towards women. One colleague who worked at the Gate in his last year as artistic director wrote about the "plethora of inappropriateness and bullying" which she endured. Playwright Grace Dyas detailed her own humiliation at his hands. These stories were all the more compelling for being individual testimonies, which simply laid out what these women had experienced, without adornment or sensationalism. Colgan has yet to respond to the claims.
Given the serious nature of some, if not most, of these international allegations, it's hard not to see what's happening worldwide as a just reckoning for the men involved after decades of getting away with it. Harvey Weinstein was a monster, almost mythic in his relentless depravity. Other men have abused their corporate or star power over female and male, but mostly female, subordinates, to extract sexual favours like mediaeval lords of the manor asserting their feudal right to deflower peasant girls living on their land.
To offer any way back to redemption for these men would be an affront to natural justice.
How, though, did that righteous fury lead to a situation where BBC radio presenter John Humphrys has come under fire for simply asking whether there was, in the current climate, the risk of a "witch-hunt" against men whose sexual advances were clumsy or unwelcome rather than threatening.
"I don't think we've reached that point," insisted his guest, Tory peer Lord Hague, and he's surely right - though it is worth mentioning that one UK government minister is currently under investigation for sending a text to an acquaintance admiring her appearance in a corset in a newspaper and asking if she was "free for a drink any time".
We might not be there yet, but, if that's a career-ending offence, then it may not be far off.
There have been other troubling developments in recent days. Last weekend saw the emergence of a social media hashtag, #IrishWeinstein, following anonymous and unsubstantiated claims that a prominent male journalist had raped a woman 40 years ago, together with some other salacious, so far also unsubstantiated, rumours and allegations. It quickly became a magnet for innuendo. Names were being tossed around with abandon and scant regard for standards of proof. It is not unreasonable to feel a degree of disquiet under these circumstances.
It's not simply the risk of innocent men being wrongly named, though that's a real possibility. Indeed, it may already be happening. Nor is it simply the conflation of small and large abuses, though much of the commentary around this issue still fails to draw a necessary distinction between suggestive comments on the one hand and persistent and unwanted demands for sex on the other.
Even if harassment does exist on a spectrum, it's vital to place incidents in their proper place on that spectrum, rather than treating them all as equally damning.
Nor, for that matter, should touching someone's knee be treated as if it's only a few steps away from rape in a hotel room by the most powerful man in Hollywood.
The real danger is that we have now reached the next stage, whereby expressing any misgivings about how this story of sexual harassment has unfolded is to stand accused of not wanting predatory men to be held accountable for their mistreatment of women.
It's becoming a "whose side are you on?" situation, when it ought to be one where it's possible both to create a space where women can come forward and be supported as they recount their experiences, and also to be concerned at where it all may lead if handled badly. Those who urge caution are being treated as if they are enablers of abuse.
"Innocent until proven guilty" have become dirty words. And, just to be clear, that isn't to say, as some have done, that the courts are the only place for these allegations to be aired. The testimonies of women can be more than enough in themselves. But it's entirely consistent with progressive, genuinely feminist principles to argue that the only way to create a safe space for women to speak out is to proceed carefully, responsibly, rather than unleashing an unruly free for all. That only makes it easier for those who want to dismiss the exposure of harassment as vengeful hysteria.
What needs to be borne in mind throughout is the inevitability of unintended consequences. Bad comes with good. Whilst it should be stressed that the principal players in the recent allegations have been unmasked thanks to traditional media, after methodical research and a slow amassing of multiple sources, it's also true that much of the noise around the issue is being made by social media.
Nothing wrong with that. For women who would otherwise be denied a voice, the internet is a megaphone through which they've been able to shout out to the world. That's exhilarating. Few things are more liberating than the truth.
At the same time, it needs to be acknowledged that social media has a dark side, so the truth can quickly become drowned out by trolling, defamation, populist ranting, and what's been called the "pile-on" culture, where online mobs gather to inflict virtual punishment beatings on anyone who dares step out of line. All of this flourishes on a forum where personal responsibility for one's words is easy to evade. You can't have the one without also unleashing the other, so it's essential to go into that with ones eye's open.
Similarly, when feminist campaigner and Irish Times columnist Una Mullally ties the current torrent of stories about sexual harassment to a greater emotional openness in public life, which has seen prominent people in Ireland come out as gay in advance of the same sex marriage referendum, or bravely detail their own abortions as the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment gets under way in earnest, as well as talking about their mental health problems and other issues which would previously have been seen as private matters, she's right to celebrate it; but this new confessional spirit also has a downside.
Unchecked, it encourages a narcissistic need to place oneself at the centre of every story; to think that it is, in some senses, about you just as much as it is about the women affected directly; the very hashtag #MeToo almost unconsciously satirises that Me, Me, Me tendency in contemporary culture.
The dangers in this approach become evident when Andrea Leadsom, the Conservative Leader of the House of Commons, who's been entrusted with tackling the issue of sexual harassment at Westminster, declares that the important criteria is how those who are on the receiving end of certain behaviours "feel", saying: "If people are made to feel uncomfortable, that is not correct." No one's arguing with that. But how a person feels is only part of the picture, it can't be the ultimate arbiter of whether a particular act was objectively wrong. Increasingly that's all it takes for punishment to follow. It's sexual harassment if you feel that it is. It's racism if you say it is. It's homophobia if a gay person describes it that way. If someone declares him or herself to be hurt or offended, then that's supposed to be the end of the debate. Feelings matter. Obviously. But there are risks in making someone's feelings the be all and end all of a debate, because what if a woman doesn't mind having the boss slap her backside or direct lewd comments at her? Does that mean he's done nothing wrong?
Women who argue that the whole furore has gone too far, practically to a point where they almost see pestering as a compliment, are just taking this relativist argument to its simultaneously logical and utterly illogical conclusion.
Ironically this tyranny of elevating feelings above reason is what has led to the populism of Donald Trump. Facts don't matter. Only feelings do. That's his philosophy too. Prominent feminists such as Lindy West have even declared that "gossip and rumour mills" are "the only recourse we have", when what has downed the men who've been exposed so far is actual verifiable facts, carefully amassed and presented in a sober fashion. Why abandon the approach which has been seen to work best so far?
The approach West appears to advocate turns that on its head and prioritises subjectivity over everything else She even writes that: "In a just system, Weinstein would have faced career-ruining social and professional consequences the first time he changed into a bathrobe and begged a horrified woman for a massage."
The only reason that seems even a remotely reasonable proposition is because the facts now exist about the sort of man Weinstein was. Had he been stopped earlier, legions of women would have been spared his loathsome attentions.
Take away that architecture of hindsight, and what's left is the assertion that any man who behaves inappropriately should be immediately and pre-emptively destroyed, presumably to offset the chance that he too might turn into a monster. Pour encourager les autres. That happens when you fail to distinguish between small errors and serial abuses. Genuine concerns about the affronts faced by women mutate into doctrinairism.
So far the post-Weinstein slew of revelations has avoided that fate, but that could quickly change. The landscape which emerges when these waters settle will only be a better one if all involved tread carefully and allow men accused of these offences to defend themselves. Even "Irish Weinsteins" have that right.