Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Many Voices of Silence

One of the more vexing questions raised by the recent flurry of sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein was why, if "everybody knew", nobody spoke up? Why did people -- colleagues, victims, friends, press -- stay silent for so long? Is it right to blame them (all of them? some of them? which ones?) for not talking? Why?

On this subject, I'd like to share a story (I might have written about it before, though if so I can't find it) from when I was in college.

I was working a summer job at a law firm. Two of my closest friends from that summer -- also college students, both women -- worked together in the mail room; I worked by myself in another wing of the office. What that meant was that we didn't really see each other during working hours, but we did eat lunch together pretty much every day.

About a week before the end of the summer, in our daily lunch walk, one of them said she wanted to ask me something personal. She said that she thought she was being sexually harassed by her supervisor, and she wanted to know what I thought she should do about it. Should she say anything? Should she report it? The summer was about to end anyway; maybe she should just ride it out.

The "thought" part is important, because part of the conversation was her being unsure whether what was happening was sexual harassment. She seemed to be consistently talking herself into and out of her own position on the matter. She'd say things that to my mind clearly sounded like harassment, but when I'd concur in the assessment she'd second-guess herself and start redescribing the events more as if he was just sort of a generically lousy boss. Then eventually she'd reach the end of the pendulum and return back to it being harassment. She went back-and-forth in that vein for awhile, and never really settled on a conclusion.

I'm not really sure why she thought I'd have any unique insight. I wasn't any older than them, and had no particular experience in the area. The best advice I could give -- and to this day I don't know if it was good advice -- was that if she felt like it was sexual harassment she should report it, and if she felt like the guy was simply a bad supervisor she should wait out the week and leave.

Meanwhile, the second friend -- who also worked in the mailroom and to whom I periodically was turning to for clarification -- was making gestures and facial expressions to the effect of "I want absolutely no part in this." I could tell this all was bothering her as well, but she was firmly on the "don't say anything, don't do anything" side. I asked her why.

She told a story of being harassed at her middle school. And there was no "thought" there: she was being groped in the halls, people were tearing off her blouse, it was truly sickening behavior. And what did she do? She did complain. She and her parents went to the principal, told him what was going on, and demanded he put a stop to it.

The result? Nothing happened.

Well, not "nothing". The principal wasn't happy to have this thrust on her plate, and so now the administration started retaliating against her for complaining. Her entire position at the school became untenable. So she transferred to a different school -- one less convenient and less academically prestigious.

The moral she learned was "don't complain about sexual harassment." Hence, she made clear, she would neither confirm, nor deny, nor participate in any way in any conversation about any sexual harassment she or her friend may or may not have experienced in the mail room.

I'm not entirely sure how this story ended, but I don't think anybody ended up saying anything to the powers-that-be. Why not? Well, I didn't in part because I don't think either of them wanted me to, in part because I didn't know what I should say, and in part because I didn't view it as my place to speak (particularly given Friend #2's vivid description of the potential consequences for them if I talked). I imagine Friend #2 didn't talk because of the "lessons" she learned the last time she tried to fight back against harassment. And if Friend #1 didn't talk, it might have been because she was afraid the same might happen to her, or because she ultimately wasn't confident in her own credibility as a complainant, or because the end was in sight and she just wanted to put things behind her.

There are all sorts of reasons for all sorts of silence. One of my personal mentors, Martha Nussbaum -- surely one of the most powerful (in all senses of the term) women in the world today -- spoke incisively about why she never reported her sexual assault and why, even now, she continues to think it was and would continue to be useless to have done so. Silence can be complicity, and sometimes it's nothing more than that. But sometimes it is much more than that. Silence is the function of an entire network of power in which everybody feels alone, everybody feels powerless, everybody feels like they can't make a difference and that the only thing that will be gained from speaking up is hurting those who deserve it least.

Put another way, the condemnations of those who "knew" and said nothing often act as if the problem was just lack of character virtue -- if people cared more, then they wouldn't remain silent. This, to my estimation, dramatically understates the cultural forces which encourage and demand silence at every turn. The forces are not -- or are not just -- threats of reprisal. They're also bonds of trust ("you promised you wouldn't say anything if I confided"), norms of role ("it's not your place to do this for me"), and desires for lost privacy ("I just don't want this to become the center of my life"). When I hear about something that "everybody knows" but nobody says, my assumption isn't that "everybody" is a callous monster. I assume that there is something deeper going on.

When it comes to sexual assault, silence occurs in isolation, while resistance comes in groups. This is why one woman catching Weinstein bragging about sexual assault on a wiretap set up by the NYPD didn't bring Weinstein down, but many women telling a reporter (who lacks guns, or handcuffs, or prison threats) causes a cascade. Taken alone, we can't imagine how our speaking up could possibly make a difference -- it will only bring trouble. They stay silent because if they speak up:
  • They'll be threatened ("you'll never work in this town again"); and/or
  • They'll be ignored ("she's just seeking attention"); and/or
  • They'll be mocked ("what makes you so special that you think Harvey Weinstein would make eyes at you?"); and/or
  • They'll be shamed ("what did you think you were getting into, going to a meeting with him alone?"); and/or
  • They'll be discredited ("Weinstein is a public figure; if he was a predator there's no way he could've kept it a secret for so long.").
And after all that heartache? Weinstein remains untouched, but the accuser has to live with the knowledge that her accusation meant nothing.

But when enough people refuse to cooperate, that massive array of power, which felt like it was an impregnable fortress, starts to topple like dominos. The people who could end your career in Hollywood now need to rush to show they're not beholden to a tainted figure like Harvey Weinstein. The "attention" oddly dissipates because it's spread across so many victims. The mockery falls flat because it is evident that Weinstein was a serial assailant. The shame doesn't stick because so many verify how he got so many women in a vulnerable position.

But the thing is, it's difficult to make that jump from being relatively alone to relatively in a community. It requires a lot of things, and courage is certainly one of them. But again, I don't think the problem is simply one of bad hearts. It's about bad culture. And I don't expect things to change much until that culture is unwound.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

"It Could've Been Worse" is the Ultimate Non-Sequitur

Israel Bonan writes on the history of Egyptian Jews and the significant oppression -- culminating in violence and expulsion -- that characterized their experience in the 20th century.

It's a reply to Eyal Sagui Bizawe, who also wrote about the 20th century history of Egyptian Jews. Bizawe's column is somewhat peculiar, since it doesn't rely deny the reality of historical oppression so much as it seems cranky that it's being talked about as a form of significant oppression. It's replete with logic like "well, yeah Jews were expelled from Egypt, but not all of them so ... why should we call it 'expulsion'?" Or "yes, there was violence directed at Jews and Jewish neighborhoods, but 'pogrom' -- that's overselling it, no?"

Basically, Bizawe seems to think it's a sort of trick, or a form of dirty pool, for Egyptian Jews to argue that a significant (not the only, but a significant) component of their recent social experience was discrimination by the Egyptian state and society. It's unfair, it's reactionary, it's harboring a closet right-wing agenda. None of these contentions are particularly persuasive, and Bonan's column does a good job refuting them. But read them both and decide for yourself.