Of flawed men and dangerous​ ones

For the CBC on November 30, 2017

In early November, Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston weighed in on the stunning allegations of sexual misconduct levelled against Hollywood icon Kevin Spacey — one of the early casualties of the so-called Weinstein effect — in an interview with BBC Newsbeat.

Cranston suggested Spacey was “a phenomenal actor, but not a very good person,” describing Spacey’s alleged predatory behaviour as “beyond disgusting. It’s almost animalistic … his career now I think is over.”

Cranston’s response was, at the time, a minor entry on the list of celebrity reactions. It was a chat with BBC’s Will Gompertz, just days later, which drew considerable attention — and outrage.

Finding a way back

Cranston was asked if he thought there was a way back for some of the “Weinsteins and Spaceys of the world.” (To be clear, the full conversation was far more substantive than subsequent clickbait-y headlines would suggest.) In response, Cranston spoke of the wider societal problem of sexual harassment and specifically called for male introspection. Then he went on:

“It would take time,” he said. “It would take a society to forgive them, and tremendous contrition on their part … a knowingness that they have a deeply rooted psychological and emotional problem [that] takes years to mend. If they were to show they put the work in and are truly sorry and making amends, not defending their actions but asking for forgiveness, then maybe down the road there is room for that, maybe so.”

It was an admirably honest, thoughtful response to an uncomfortable question of how to deal with perpetrators of sexual harassment and abuse.

Must every offender become a pariah, or is there room for rehabilitation — possibly even forgiveness — depending on the severity of the crime, sincerity of remorse, input from the victims and totality of circumstances?

As Ruth Marcus, deputy editorial page editor for The Washington Post, argued: “The notion of the cleansing purge has its satisfactions.” There’s a tendency, however, to “overcorrect for past sins. If society once ignored sexual harassment — and we certainly did — one risk…is overcompensating for earlier apathy.”

Marcus has a point. That’s not to suggest men like Harvey Weinstein, who embody a particularly heinous sort of sexual predator — those who not only victimize prey, but implicate all those around by terrorizing them into silence — deserve any shot at redemption. Nor do men who prey on children.

But this overdue reckoning with inappropriate conduct will include transgressions that are arguably minor, and not so straightforward; behaviour more ambiguous — boorish and repulsive, perhaps, but not habitual or necessarily criminal, if still wrong. I suspect most — if not all — men have behaved in some regrettable manner at a given time. But it’s a mistake to assume a man’s worst days accurately reflect his character or potential to reform.

Case in point: Senator Al Franken.

Earlier this month, Los Angeles radio personality Leeann Tweeden alleged that the comedian-turned-senator forcibly kissed her while rehearsing a comedy bit back in 2006 on a USO tour. The same tour produced the now-infamous photo of Franken mugging for a camera while reaching for Tweeden’s breasts as she slept.

After the allegations were made public, Franken conceded that he “let a lot of people down,” but said he is determined to make amends: to prove himself a better man and still-worthy senator.

“This is not going to happen quickly,” Franken said. “I have to earn this over time and that’s what I plan to do.”

Long a sincere and fierce advocate for women, Franken recognizes the unique betrayal many women feel and the additional challenge of repairing that bond. “I know I’m not going to regain their trust immediately. There’s no magic words I can say here to make that happen.”

Compare with Weinstein who immediately sought victimhood, claiming his sexual crimes — which were so obviously premeditated choices — were the result of “sex addiction.” The diagnosis has become a handy tool, of late, to absolve sexual predators of responsibility.

After a single week of “intensive therapy” at a luxury Arizona rehab/resort — a choice “treatment” destination for Spacey, too — Weinstein checked himself out. Far from seeking to earn a second chance, Weinstein, who considers himself “the good guy,” apparently feels entitled to one.

Franken, meanwhile, has welcomed a Senate ethics investigation, vowing to fully co-operate and take responsibility.

“I’m going to be held accountable, and I’m going to try to be productive in the way I speak about this,” he said. In addition to his personal, unequivocal apology to Tweeden, which she graciously accepted without hesitation, Franken’s introspection has been laudable. For instance, though he maintains a different recollection of the USO rehearsal, he understands Tweeden’s interpretation differs from what he believes was his intent, and he accepts that some violation happened on account of his actions.

Learning from mistakes

What adds weight to Franken’s words are his actions: he hasn’t just said the right things, he has already taken steps to atone for his sins and learn from his offending conduct. Short of his resignation, what more should we reasonably ask?

Tempting as it is to “burn it all down” amid the torrent of allegations of sexual impropriety — an inclination which gains appeal with each, seemingly daily bombshell (see: Matt Lauer) — tangible progress and lasting change happen incrementally.

Allowing imperfect men to be part of the solution, even if they were, at some point, in some way, part of the problem, can make for a powerful allied force for good. The passion and dedication that those reformed often bring to a cause shouldn’t be overlooked or underestimated.

It’s important we listen to the stories of those who have been targeted and victimized by powerful, horrible men. But careful weighing of the appropriate, proportional response toward all accused will help ensure irredeemable offenders — and their network of enablers — are fully exposed and held to account. Misdirected anger is wasted energy and, ultimately, a distraction from the larger, most crucial end.

 

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She’s someone.

For the Ottawa Citizen on October 12, 2017

In the wake of allegations swirling around Harvey Weinstein, a powerful, dominant figure in Hollywood, where the emerging picture suggests decades of sexual predation, many women are finding their voice in this rare window for candid dialogue and raw confession.

The response from some of Hollywood’s leading men, however, has been a standard refrain, one that helps maintain the power dynamic which allows abuse to happen. When Matt Damon claims “as the father of four daughters,” Weinstein’s alleged behaviour is the sort of thing  “that keeps me up at night,” he offers no hint of understanding the root of the problem.

On Wednesday, writing in The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino explained how “one of the cruellest things about these acts is the way that they entangle, and attempt to contaminate, all of the best things about you … a powerful man sees you, a woman who is young and who thinks she might be talented, a person who conveniently exists in a female body, and he understands that he can tie your potential to your female body, and threaten the latter, and you will never be quite as sure of the former again.”

This is a familiar, abusive dynamic which exists far beyond Hollywood and touches every industry – though the menacing behaviour may not always be sexual in nature. No matter the method, abusing one’s power at the most personal level is about eroding the agency of women, ultimately assuming control and enforcing compliance by way of threats, coercion and humiliation.

When a woman’s talent resides in her physical abilities – the abuse some female athletes experience occurs on multiple, concurrent levels – that fallout, as noted above by Tolentino, is compounded. When a woman’s value and potential depends on a body that performs above all else, the relentless pursuit of a more-perfect – stronger, faster, leaner – physique inside a sport results in a body that doesn’t fit neatly outside of it, and the degradation met from either side of that divide ultimately ends in doubting and hating every aspect of oneself.

Anyone who understands the type and extent of damage done by deeply personal mistreatment will find the now-standard refrain when abuses comes to light – she’s someone’s sister/mother/daughter/wife – completely hollow.

It’s a line that reinforces the notion of a woman’s inherent worth being dependent on another’s evaluation: In this case, her importance centres around her direct relation to another. She can be more readily humanized and related to here because she fits squarely into some female box and afforded a basic value.

When Ben Affleck, in response to the allegations against Weinstein, (hypocritically) says he is “saddened and angry that a man who I worked with used his position of power to intimidate, sexually harass and manipulate many women over decades … we need to do better at protecting our sisters, friends, co-workers and daughters,” he is suggesting women are simply in urgent need of defending.

His response maintains the hierarchy and imbalance of power that fuels abuse, one where men reign supreme and women are always regarded as the lesser, weaker beings: easy prey.

The “she is someone’s” framing fails to recognize women as worthy of dignity and respect in their own right. Each woman is something apart from her body.

She is someone – period.

Women are doctors, lawyers, teachers and mentors. We are athletes and builders, academics and scholars. Yes, women are daughters and mothers and sisters; we are friends and partners, too. But we are fierce, capable individuals independent of any given familial, professional or intimate relationship.

Daughters don’t need a future of white-knight defending, they need an environment where their ideas, abilities and potential are allowed to stand or fall on their own merits. That requires effort from men in teaching their sons to do and be better than they were, while challenging fellow men, and toxic cultures, to change.

Rather than seeking ways to humanize women, men should ask why that effort is necessary at all, then determine their role in correcting that. This isn’t so much about your mothers, wives, sisters as it is about sons, brothers and fathers.