Monday, November 20, 2017

Moore, Franken, and the New Politics of Sex

Sexual harassment, discrimination, and assault are wrong.  But there is a difference between accusations of the three and guilt.  Yet in a post-HarveyWeinstein world, we are dangerously close to treating accusations as guilt, pushing our culture into another Salem witch hunt or McCarthy era that will damage many individuals, permanently labeling them as modern day witches or communists who can do nothing to prove their innocence or redeem themselves.
Fear and prejudice has led America to do many ugly things.  It all started in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692.  Told brilliantly by Arthur in the Crucible, 20 individuals–14 of which were women–were accused of being witches, and hung or died as a result of the accusations.  Those accused were done so because they were unpopular, or scapegoats given up by those who wished to blame others for offenses they were accused of and were able to save themselves by implicating others.
Salem is the story of the ugly side of American society.  Overtime we have had many Salems.  The city and its witch hunts are the backdrops for Miller’s Crucible, written at the height of the McCarthy era in the 1950s, where congressional hearings and the question “are you now or have you ever been a member  of the community party?” denounced individuals as guilty simply by accusation or invocation of the right to remain silent.  Thousands lost their jobs, Hollywood decimated, often because they held views, joined organizations, or supported causes, sometimes many years earlier, which some deemed objectionable.
Some will claim false equivalence in  equivocating sexual harassment, discrimination, and assault with accusations of being a witch or communist.  Witches don’t exist and the McCarthy era  was about an attack on the First Amendment.  But Salem and witches are metaphors.  Many live in Salems–closed communities or bubbles of like-minded people who fear outsiders and condemn  them with nary a hint of real evidence of something heinous.  It is guilt unless improbably they prove their innocence.  It is judging someone as evil regardless of the gravity of the action simply because they did something objectionable somewhere or sometime in their life, regardless of the circumstances.
For nearly 20 years I have taught professional ethics.  Among the questions I ask is how to we judge the relationship between the personal and professional role of public officials?  Can one be an ethical Senator, for example, even if one is not so in his private life?  Or what if someone did something wrong years ago–perhaps at a time before they held office–should that action continue to define their character for the rest of their life or career?  At one point does something we did perhaps in our youth years ago define who we are today, rendering us unfit to serve?
None of us are angels.  We are all human and make mistakes. Yet to let one mistake condemn us to purgatory or hell may be wrong.  At some point what one did, when, why, how many times, and how matters.  How and whether it interconnects our personal and professional lives are matters of judgment and fine moral distinctions.  We also need to distinguish between bad acts and what the philosopher Aristotle labeled habits of character which define who we are.  Judge based not necessarily on one or several mistakes but on how they define a person’s overall character.
There is a moral or ethical difference between crude sexual jokes and sexual assault and treating them all as equally disqualifying for office does a disservice to how we judge culpability for bad behavior.  There needs also to be recognition of the changing standards of conduct that define the ethics of actions. There is a slippery slope here.  At one time being gay, divorced, having an affair, or even smoking a joint were considered damning grounds to exclude one from public office or declare one to be a witch.   Yes, sexual assault and discrimination should always have been wrong, and the same might be said of sexually offensive gestures or statements.    But in some cases it may be unfair to judge people by contemporary standards for actions that occurred along time ago when standards were different, or when individuals were young, immature, or simply different people from whom they are now.
Portia in William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice declares that “The quality of mercy is not strain'd,” Forgiveness is our better virtue in many cases.  Our society and prisons are jammed with many people whom we  refuse to forgive, condemning them for life for mistakes that they have  made at one time in their life, perhaps long ago.  Might as a society it be more just and fair we give some a second chance?  Might as a society we be more just and fair and not jump on the bandwagon and condemn equally all who said or did something we find offensive.  There are powerful differences among what Roy Moore, Al Franken, Donald Trump, and others did, or allegedly did, as well as what many in Hollywood are accused of.  Treating them all the same–as witches with equal culpability –is too crude of a way to address the problems of sexual harassment, discrimination, and assault in our society.

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