Ever since the accusations against Harvey Weinstein emerged, women have felt empowered to raise their voices against powerful men who have sexually assaulted or harassed them. The perpetrators have ranged from other Hollywood elites like Ben Affleck to journalist Mark Halperin, to former President George H.W. Bush. It seems any time we men are given a little bit of power, we use it against women.
Kudos to the brave women who have stepped up and named the perpetrators knowing that their names could potentially be dragged through the mud next. Many of the men being accused now are, at the very least, owning their misdeeds, apologizing, and at least in the public sphere, facing some consequences.
That’s a good thing.
One accusation hit me harder than some of the others, though, and I feel like I may have to go into some unpopular territory to work through it. Please stick with me.
Earlier this week, I read Jenny Listman’s article, plainly titled, “When I Was Nineteen Years Old, Elie Weisel Grabbed My Ass“. Even writing that here makes my brain and my heart hurt. What a surreal world we live in.
Before I go any further, let me say that I fully believe Ms. Listman. I say that without equivocation or qualification. I believe you, Ms. Listman! Thank you for being brave enough to share your story!
So now… what do we do with Elie Weisel? What do we do with any powerful man who has produced great work, done great things, contributed to society at large and still commit heinous acts?
What do you do especially with someone like Weisel who has had an incredible impact on shaping our collective moral compass since the end of the second World War?
I don’t have easy answers. To me, Night will always be a must read. I will never shy away from posting Weisel’s words, words such as:
We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.
The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.
There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.
To me, those are strong adages to live by. But as any of us who have any kind of public platform know, we must be diligent in practicing what we preach. It’s Weisel’s own words that force me to speak against him here.
Weisel died just last year. I don’t know what would have happened if he had lived to read Ms. Listman’s accusations against him. I want to believe that he would have owned his mistake, apologized to his accuser, and done what he could to make amends for his frankly cowardly act.
I want to believe that.
But that door has closed.
What’s left is the tarnishing of a great man’s legacy, brought about by his own willingness to use his power against a vulnerable person.
I suppose this is where I’m supposed to go into Calvinistic, total depravity territory. I hate that language. We’re all imperfect, but I still start from the framework of all of us being created in the Divine image. At the end of the day, we all carry good around with us.
As the “woke” kids say, all of our “favs” are “problematic”. MLK was an adulterer. All of my favorite rappers have used homophobic or misogynistic lyrics. Every pastor I know has unhealthy coping mechanisms.
We’re all complicated.
That’s not to let anyone off the hook. People need to be called into account for their actions. I do think there are cautions that we should observe as we think about how we approach these kinds of scandals.
I’ll start with where I think many may disagree with me: I don’t believe that bad behavior disqualifies good work. Like I said, I still think Night is a must read. Harvey Weinstein still executive produced Good Will Hunting, Shakespeare in Love, and most of Tarentino’s films. MLK is still… well, MLK.
No piece of work has ever been produced by an uncomplicated person. Great work does not vindicate a person, but we run the risk of throwing out a lot of babies, which should never happen despite how dirty the bath water is.
That said, we also have to be aware of our own triggers. Personally, I can’t watch The Cosby Show right now. It’s an amazing, groundbreaking show, but I can’t look at Bill Cosby without being a little sick to my stomach. Ms. Listman may not be able to read Night again, and I think that is within her right. We need to respect that people will set the bar at different places.
So here’s the other unpopular thing I’ll say: we have to talk about sexual assault in terms of degrees. In our current climate, we have a broad definition of sexual assault. Sexual assault can range from an unwanted touch to rape. I don’t disagree with that all, but unless a whole lot of information comes out about Weisel in the next few weeks, I can’t put Weisel in the same category as Weinstein.
That may be unfair to the victim of a Weisel. It may seem like it is discounting Ms. Listman’s experience of being violated. That is the last thing that I want to do. She has every right to be heard and were it possible and her attacker should have been held to account. The difference is that Weisel should have been shamed and forced to apologize and maybe make financial restitution to Ms. Listman. By all accounts, Weinstein and Cosby should be in jail.
Part of this conversation needs to leave room open for abusers, men or women, to grow and that isn’t always something we do well. Again, looking at the breadth of the accusations against him, I don’t take Harvey Weinstein’s week long “sex rehab” very seriously. That said, I do believe that people are capable of doing better once they know better.
Men, including some who have been caught up in the recent scandals, often make the claim that having a daughter has changed their perspective on how they have treated women in the past. I think that can be a positive thing as long as it is not tied to a desire to control their daughters’ sexualities.
For some men, the recent #metoo campaign has been an eye opener. While it shouldn’t take knowing someone personally to take sexual assault seriously, nor should it take the knowledge that the experience of harassment and assault are nearly universal, but for many, these realizations are the beginning of positive change.
Since I started writing this, accusations have come out against Kevin Spacey, one of my all time favorite actors. In Spacey’s case, his “apology” and subsequent coming out may have done more harm than good. Disappointed as I may be, I can’t see myself not watching The Usual Suspects, Baby Driver, or House of Cards ever again. I side with the victim but I don’t discard the work. It’s complicated…
I wish I had a nice bow to wrap this up in, some sunshiny “and the moral to the story is…” ending that would make us all feel better. I don’t. People are messy. All people are messy. Power adds to the messiness considerably. I believe in grace and redemption. I also believe in accountability and siding with victims. Sometimes it feels like those sets of beliefs come in conflict. I believe that the evils of powerful men, even great men, need to be brought to the light of day so that victims can heal. Our ultimate goal, I believe should be restoration to community, first for the victim, then for the oppressor.
What does that look like?
We’d better start coming up with answers because these revelations will only become more frequent…