‘Harveyed’ and the language of harassment

 

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Dear Rebecca:

A real quick note about the language we’re seeing in the storm of sexual harassment stories that have popped up since the first allegations against Harvey Weinstein were revealed a few weeks back.

Let’s take a tour around the Internet, shall we?

• “Because of an email chain that I was not a part of, Wieseltier has now been Weinsteined. Shamed and disgraced.”

• “Wieseltier has always been something of a lech. I heard stories about him all the time when I was living in DC in the 1990s. There’s no question that he was serially piggish, and that in general, he is a complete jerk. But he’s getting Harveyed.”

• “None of this should be hard. There are too many allegations settled for too much money for O’Reilly to receive the benefit of the doubt. It’s time for O’Reilly to be Weinsteined. ”

There’s more, but you get the idea. The word “Harveyed” or “Weinsteined” is often being used to describe the act of embarrassing powerful men accused of sexual harassment. What I don’t like about it is that the verb form makes these men the objects of the action — the victims, almost — instead of the authors of their own acts. It places the onus on the women, somehow, in a way that feels wrong.

The language is still in flux. Some women are using saying they’ve been “Harveyed” to indicate they were harassed, and Oxford Dictionaries has even weighed in, declaring that Weinstein’s name is becoming “shorthand for the broader victimization that happens at the hands of person abusing their professional power.”

It’s still early, though, and the language could go either way. We should think about how our use of it conveys the story we’re trying to tell.

Sincerely,
Joel

No, the sexual revolution didn’t cause Harvey Weinstein

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Dear Rebecca:

It’s becoming something of a trope on the socially conservative right that the reason for Harvey Weinstein is … the sexual revolution. It’s a critique of Weinstein that echoes his own laughable defense of himself, and ignores one critical thing: Men in power have been preying on women since time immemorial, even — sometimes especially — when conservative sexual ethics ruled the day.

David French offers such an argument over at National Review:

You can sum up the sexual ethic of the sexual revolutionary in one sentence: Except in the most extreme circumstances (such as incest), consenting adults define their own moral norms. One-night stands? Fine, so long as there’s consent. May/December relationships. Fantastic, so long as there’s consent. Workplace liaisons between boss and subordinate? No problem, with consent. Adultery? Yes, there are tears, but the heart wants what it wants.

There’s a lot to unpack here, but French relies on a concept of consent that’s so one-dimensional that it leads him to produce an error-filled paragraph.

“Consent” these days is more than about saying “yes” or “no” but includes the power dynamics that surround them. So actually: We still cast a wary cultural eye at May-December romances, because we worry that the older person is taking advantage of a younger person’s lack of experience, lack of knowledge, lack of power, whatever. Workplaces liasons between boss and subordinate? Maybe French hasn’t been through the sexual harassment training videos that I have, but again: The power differential makes this dicey.

As for adultery: Who lionizes the adulterer? He may have consent with the person who shares the affair with him, but he damages the consent shared with his spouse – who operates in such a climate with a deficiency of critical information.

French again:

The practical result of consent-focused morality is the sexualization of everything. With the line drawn at desire alone, there is no longer any space that’s sex-free. Work meetings or restaurants can be creative locations for steamy liaisons. Not even marriage or existing relationships stand as a firewall against potential hookups.

One wonders how closely the man has read his own Bible. King David sent Uriah off to die in a war so he could sleep with Bathsheba, we’re told in Jewish and Christian scriptures. He was a man who abused his power to whet his sexual appetites – and remained in God’s good graces enough, we’re told, that his lineage came to include the Savior of All Humankind. 

What kind of lesson are we supposed to take from that?

The Sexual Revolution was probably not an unambiguously a good thing. No human developments are! But an ethic of consent was probably one of the better things that has emerged from it — and, as French’s writing indicates, it takes a misunderstanding of that ethic to make it responsible for Harvey Weinstein … whose actions, it must be emphasized, apparently happened entirely without regard to or respect for consent. 

There are a lot of villains in this story. “Consent” is not even close to being one of them.

Respectfully,

Joel

Listen to women, Part 2 (Or: Complicity is easy!)

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The spotlight is getting hot, isn’t it?

Dear Rebecca:

When I’m tempted to get self-righteous about the whole Harvey Weinstein thing, this comes along:

In 2015, I attended the Just for Laughs festival as a journalist writing on behalf of Gawker, a profoundly flawed organization I miss desperately. The organizers of the festival did not know the purpose of my presence was a desire to get to the bottom of Louis CK’s numerous accusations of sexual impropriety. Had they known, I surely would not have been invited to attend. Because Louie, you see, is a “friend” of the JFL organization.

A tall man in a suit approached, relieving her of the duty of admonishing me. He was, in a word, livid. In two words, fucking livid. Red faced, he informed me that JFL is a “family,” that Louie is a member of said “family,” and that I could ask my question on “my turf,” but that this was “our turf.” This wasn’t “that kind” of red carpet, he informed me, it was a “friendly one,” and Louie was a “friend of the festival.” Were I to ask the offending question again, he said, I would be ejected from the carpet. But if I asked “nice” questions, I would be allowed to stay. His demeanor aggressively implied he had no desire to let me do so. Tears stinging my eyes, I apologized to the man who loomed over me, the man I later learned was the COO of JFL, for my indiscretion and said I’d straighten up and fly right.

Now, to be clear, there have been no substantiated allegations about Louis CK — but in recent years, you’ve seen more stories about stories that allude to a possible problem without making definitive accusations. (Again, I feel compelled to say for legal reasons: I don’t *know* that Louis CK has ever done anything untoward, but references to hazy, undefined problems have appeared in high-profile publications like NYMag’s Vulture.) Until last week, of course, we could say the same thing about Harvey Weinstein.

Whether Louis CK has a problem or not, though, here’s the thing I realized while reading the above piece. I don’t want him to have a problem. I like Louis CK! He makes me laugh! He’s even made me think! The world would be poorer without some of the art he’s made!

But … that’s bullshit.

Complicity starts with not wanting to see. Enabling begins with an unwillingness to look truth square in the eye. And the result, often, is that women who have been abused find themselves with few avenues for justice or truth telling because Person X is likable, or made a piece of art that moved us, or has friends in our “family,” or maybe, simply, just makes us money.

I do not know what the endgame will be with Louis CK. I want to root for his innocence. It’s wiser to root for truth. If I’m lucky, truth and innocence will be on the same page. But that hope is not a piece of evidence that has any bearing on what the truth is.

Complicity is easy. Listening to women is … not as easy for a lot of us. But it’s worthier. I hope I do the worthy thing. I’ll keep trying.

With respect,
Joel