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There can be little doubt that we have been living in a culture of sexism, patriarchy, and the dehumanization of women. That culture, and those practices, surely need to be challenged and changed, as does our racism and imperialism. But note that it is the practices and attitudes of the cultures and institutions that need to be changed. That calls for targeting the cultural institutions that enable nefarious practices, with a set of moral values such as equality, and a set of principles, such as respect for persons. What we are seeing now, with the regular accusations of sexual misconduct on the part of individual famous men, done frequently behind a shield of privacy while targeting individuals for ruin, is anything but a movement for social change. Targeting individuals for ruin is not the same as targeting issues or institutions and their practices, nor does it offer solutions to problems. It only serves to divide people—in the case, the sexes—even more, and threatens a backlash to a Puritanical sexuality in our culture.
This month alone, there have been close to 20 famous men who have been publicly accused of sexual misconduct, many of them by anonymous accusers, and have had their careers destroyed as a result. Now Tavis Smiley and Dustin Hoffmann are to join that ignominious list. Incidents, not always even patterns, that allegedly occurred sometimes up to one-quarter century ago, are now being used not to change a culture, but to exact a revenge on individual men ostensibly behaving badly.
Progressive movements traditionally target social issues and institutions for change, not people for professional assassination. If change is the goal, the accusations need to be dealt with either in the institution in which it occurred, or in a court of law, not just in the court of public opinion alone. If it is brought into the public arena, the target should be the offending institution and culture that protects sexually deviant conduct, and their managers who support it. If individuals are named publicly, it should be part of a charge brought against them, not just an unsupported accusation. Yet, how many of those who have privately accused public figures of harassment have filed institutional and/or legal complaints or even come out in the open? When accusers stand behind the wall of privacy and/or are not required—even by the media or society at large—to present support for their public charges, it is easy to pick out targets for public assault.
Even the Democratic party itself, under leader Nancy Pelosi, does not have the intestinal fortitude to support the impeachment of Donald Trump for his constitutional violations, Rather, they have stooped to using the strategy of “sexually cleansing” the Democratic Party of men accused of such misconduct, so that they may use the same weapon of sexual accusations as a bludgeon against Trump. They didn’t even bother with Al Franken’s own suggestion that he be investigated by the Senate Ethics Committee. This shows the extent of the reactionary nature of this movement: by weaponizing sex in the public realm—similar or parallel to what they charge their targets with doing in the private realm—they can gain political power. But this weapon won’t work. First of all, it was used in the last election, and Trump still became President. Second, impeachable offenses or voter persuasions that hope to gain traction will have to engage even the moderate Trump supporters both in and out of Congress. All this strategy demonstrates is Democratic Party anemia: due to their illicit marriage to Wall Street and the military-industrial complex, they can no longer maintain their connection to and support of the citizens of the country, since that would require policies, platforms, and actions that specifically defend equality and work to stop oppression in society—and, one might add, makes moves to end illegal U.S. aggression against foreign nations, including the threats to attack North Korea. That the Democrats can only come up with strategies that support for the “Me, Too” movement (and “blame Russia”) is a sign of moral and political bankruptcy.
It is important to keep in mind that where there is public, supported or otherwise documented evidence of sexual wrongdoing, and the one accused has been given his right to confront his accuser and respond to the accusations, ideally in a court of law, we can talk about proper punishment. Both legally and morally, each of those accused has the right to confront their accuser in the public sphere, to hear the evidence supporting the charges, and to refute them. They have a right to the presumption of innocence until the evidence shows otherwise. This is all included under due process. Anything directed only at an individual alone can only be intended to punish the accused to the point of ending their career or hurting them individually. This is not progressive and cannot be culture-changing in intent.
The bottom line should be that if there are allegations of sexual misconduct that warrant further investigation from a corporate manager or law enforcement, there should be just that: an investigation. This investigation should not be conducted behind closed doors, with no one but the accuser knowing about it. The person being investigated should know the charges, the evidence, the investigatory process, and be given the opportunity to mount a defense, if he chooses. While this process is underway, the worst that should befall the alleged offender is a leave of absence, until the investigation is complete. That would be a fair procedure and the moral thing to do. But you don’t hear such calls from the current movement that attacks individuals alone. So far, all that has happened in the majority of cases is that allegations have been made and careers and lives have been destroyed as a result. The denials made by some of the accused have been rejected a priori, and guilt has already been decided.
On the other side, we are all aware of the stories regarding what happens to some women who make public claims against public figures. But making such claims public is part of a fair process that protects both parties of concern. It takes real courage to associate oneself with such charges made publicly, and that is how real change comes about. The women who have done so have demonstrated such courage. For the rest, that we are reducing ourselves to making Hasty Generalizations about guilt or innocence on the basis of no or fragmentary evidence, evidence which is not the result of any investigation, and that we now act in the fashion of the scandal magazine type of gossip, accusation, and public humiliation used to end careers, is a clear indication of how far we have fallen from our better natures. It is also an indication of the division between traditional liberals and progressives: the latter target social issues and use values and principles to enact institutional and cultural change; the former operate within the current institutional structure in order to gain power within it, oftentimes for self-interested concerns alone.
It will not do, either, for the defenders of those who dole out the public humiliation we have been seeing, to submit that time will tell if those who are charging public figures with sexual crimes and misconduct come forward with public evidence, such as filing a case in a court of law. That defense ignores the fact that lives and careers are being destroyed right now, frequently behind walls of secrecy and almost always based on non-public evidence that shields both accuser and the institution in which the accused allegedly acted. The only one who is pushed into the public spotlight is the accused. That makes it a tough and unfair fight for anyone accused. On the other hand, it is flatly false to argue that the men accused of allegedly inappropriate sexual behavior are being given their right to due process. The process of “accusation—termination” does not fit either the legal or the moral requirements of being presumed innocent until proven guilty, being permitted to publicly confront one’s accuser, etc. The whole point is to protect the presumption of innocence against mob mentality of assumed guilt on the basis of a public accusation. These are all issues that the ACLU usually fights for, but they have been inexplicably quiet during this process.
Many feminist authors would have trouble with the current movement as well. For example, Simone de Beauvoir, in her book, The Ethics and Ambiguity, makes it clear that she is arguing against authoritative and abusive institutions and structures, not individual personalities. In more contemporary writing, Iris Marion Young, a feminist and postmodern liberal, in her political writings as well, was intellectually honest enough to underscore the fact that certain groups in society are oppressed, and that these groups, qua groups, seek justice. She sought no individual out for public flogging in either her writing or her activism: she knew that justice and revenge against individual perpetrators are not the same thing.
Finally, is there not a blurring of categories in all these allegations? Unwelcomed sexual advances and sexual banter are not on the same moral or legal level as unwelcomed physical touching or physical exposure, with or without accompanying masturbation. Nor are any of these actions on the same moral or legal level as a direct sexual assault or rape. There are moral as well as legal lines between a personal offense, sexual misconduct within or outside of a professional setting, and verbal or physical abuse. Yet all sexual issues involved these days are being blurred into one giant non-judicial charge, with the intended punishment a public humiliation.
Revolutions are born from those seeking a change to the status quo, and revolutionaries work for that change with a promulgated principle or set of principles that both show a positive end-game and are set to galvanize people to act against oppressive institutional structures. All we have seen from the reactionaries to cases of claimed sexual misconduct are individual vendettas, and a distinct absence of calls to eliminate cultures of abuse and oppression. At best, the latter is assumed, but never an overt part of the message. That allows one to hypothesize that what we are seeing is a political power play that is using individual persons as a means to that end of power. It is not a progressive movement for social change. It could well become the latter if the movement dropped their spirit of revenge and retribution and worked instead for a changed culture, naming the names of the cultural institutions and, if necessary, the managers who enable and protect abusers, predators, and those individuals who engage in sexual misconduct. They would engage more people to work for the same goal. Let us hope for more of that kind of commitment from those on the left who seek to change the culture to one of more equity, and less of the individual, personal vendettas we currently observe.
(The World Socialist Web Site ran an editorial entitled “America’s Latest ‘Scarlett Letter’ Moment,” on December 9. Portions of the ideas from that editorial were included in this reflection.)
Dr. Robert Abele holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Marquette University and M.A. degrees in Theology and Divinity. He is a professor of philosophy at Diablo Valley College, in California in the San Francisco Bay area. He is the author of four books, including A User’s Guide to the USA PATRIOT Act, and The Anatomy of a Deception: A Logical and Ethical Analysis of the Decision to Invade Iraq, along with numerous articles. His new book, Reason and Justice, is forthcoming (2018).