How the Me Too movement is being manipulated to defend the status quo, and how that's happened before.
It is easy to underestimate how important it is for us all to take action in our own spaces, our own communities.
We, all of us, have a constituency. It may be our profession, our culture, our town or it may be several different ones. Real social change cannot be imposed from outside, it must come from within.
The film industry, very recently and not before time, has begun cleaning house. There are a few lessons here. The first is that it happened because those who spoke up were people within the industry. They were actors, writers, directors. OK, I'm not going to list all the job titles in the film industry, there's a comprehensive encyclopedia at the end of literally every movie. It had to be them, it couldn't be anyone else. To do the same in the music industry we will have to hear from people in that industry and it is beginning to happen.
It is our responsibility to hold our constituencies to account; nobody can do it for us.
Here's another lesson. It's something people can often overlook.
I sometimes go to see my doctor. It's not a social call, you understand, I make an appointment and everything. When I arrive I have to wait. It's a fairly pleasant place, actually. There are seats, it's comfortable. There's no wine-list, but still, it's fine. As I sit waiting for my appointment I glance around the room and on the walls are posters. The posters are really a bit one-note. Not many prints of fine art, seemingly no tobacco adverts at all. They generally represent health-related matters, encouraging the reader to get vaccinated or explaining how to recognise the symptoms of meningitis. You may be familiar with such posters.
Now I want you to think of something odd. Imagine the posters actually alerted you to the warning signs of Dercum's Disease or Alpha-1-Antitrypsin Deficiency? Those are both actual diseases, by the way.
What they have in common is that, unlike the conditions represented on the posters in my local surgery, they are very rare. The surgery has a limited amount of physical space and it chooses to reserve it for common conditions. You could in fact argue that to display very rare conditions wouldn't just be unhelpful in the vast majority of cases, it might actually be actively damaging, directing people's attention away from real risks they might actually face.
Our media, our discussions, our very understanding of sexual assault and rape has been shaped by a narrative that points out the stranger as a threat. In reality we are now so conditioned by this that we only think of an attack outside the home when we hear the word 'rape'. We went along with the use of different terminology when it came to assaults in the home, we call it 'date-rape'. We go along with using the word 'incest' for rape inside the family. Make no mistake. Incest is rape. Date-rape is rape.
In fact a small fraction of rape is committed by the stranger in a dark alley. Most of it is committed in the home, sometimes in the family. When we created the narrative of the stranger we were directing people's attention away from a huge threat and towards a relatively unusual one. It was, and remains, a dangerous decision.
It's one we've made before. Beginning in the 1970s there were a series of campaigns across the world created to inform and educate children about the risk of abuse and the steps they could take to avoid it. These campaigns are collectively known as the 'stranger danger' campaigns, a slogan created for a US effort but typical of similar examples across the world.
Almost all child abuse is committed by family members and trusted adults well-known to the victim. Teachers, youth-leaders, priests, neighbours, coaches and, most commonly of all, parents commit these crimes. By carefully warning children of the danger that the unknown stranger represented we made it seem as if a child currently suffering abuse at the hands of a family-member was in a tiny minority. We made it seem as if such a child wouldn't be believed, would be seen as a liar, as ungrateful, as a trouble-maker.
It isn't quite so bad today, but we are still emphasising the stranger beyond their statistical relevance. Now we talk about 'grooming' and 'online safety', and we should, but it's still true that the stranger represents a small proportion of the threat to children.
My contention is that this might be intentional. If our institutions recognised how easily they are infiltrated by predators and how those predators make use of the nature of those institutions to further their activities there would be calls for changes to the way we run the institutions. As long as you think the danger to your child is lurking outside the school gates you aren't demanding that the school take care of the much greater danger posed by the staff.
And now we see the same thing with Me Too. The horrific stories emerging from this recent accounting of past crimes are a sobering look at the abuses of power by those with little accountability and less empathy. I do feel, however, that the media is grabbing the most sensational examples and raising their importance above the others. Sometimes this is because of the celebrities involved, but there also seems to be a general sense that the focus should be on the reckless and criminal acts of someone who acts opportunistically. Inviting an actor to a hotel room for a meeting and then pressuring them for sex or exposing themselves. These are serious matters, to be sure, but they represent a tiny fraction of the offences that the campaign has revealed.
The vast majority, predictably, are once again the abuse by younger or less powerful people by those who find themselves in long-term authority over them.
It probably seems as if the distinction is trivial but I don't believe it is. As long as we allow the narrative to be one of the opportunist we can allow ourselves to believe that the whole responsibility for the offence rests on the shoulders of the abuser. This is because, in these instances, it does. But I think there's a cultural component in the hierarchical structures of employment and of patronage in business and politics that is being overlooked and it shares an element of the responsibility.
But, again, maybe it isn't being overlooked, maybe it's being actively suppressed. Harvey Weinstein has obviously become the most infamous offender in this movement. He's obviously a monster if he's guilty of the offences. I feel however, that the alleged offences of people like Bill O'Reilly, while media currency when first revealed, have slipped back into relative obscurity. My reason for concern is that O'Reilly seemingly harassed his employees and people placed under him in a corporate hierarchy while it is alleged that Weinstein, at least principally, took opportunistic advantage of relative strangers.
Both types of behaviour are obviously reprehensible but I am beginning to feel that the way we, once again, focus on those assaults by opportunists has a darker purpose that is intended to obscure the systemic problems associated with placing one human being in charge of another and allowing that power to be unfettered and unmonitored. It seems that there may be some reluctance to see any wider issue with the relationship between superiors and their juniors in general and instead a willingness to point out the exceptional cases where a harasser can be identified as a 'bad apple'.
This narrative is not uncommon. Most police officers aren't racist, most socialists aren't anti-semitic, most conservatives aren't Islamophobic, most priests aren't child-abusers and most corporate leaders aren't sexual-harassers. I believe these are all true. But I believe there needs to be a fundamental rethink of how we as a society place one individual over another. While the narrative points out the stranger as the threat it can comfortably ignore the gigantic problems inherent in our social structures.
In other words I believe there are current vested interests that are manipulating the narrative to focus on things for which they cannot be blamed and which they can do nothing about. This is because they don't want the narrative to discuss things for which they can be held somewhat responsible and which they could be called upon to solve.
Corporate entities are generally given a pass on behaviour that would be considered despicable in an individual. This needs to be urgently examined. The use of sealed settlements, non-disclosure agreements, compulsory arbitration and the other tools of the law are used to cover up real problems with the culture of power and wealth.
A recent example is particularly striking. Two men became the focus of a documentary in which they described the late singer Michael Jackson as a monstrous child-abuser. In the media there was a great deal of discussion about the possible financial motive that these men might have in coming forward with such allegations, something repeatedly highlighted by members of the Jackson family in response to the documentary. For some reason there seemed to be little discussion of the financial motives of the Jackson family, after all the money still being generated by his catalogue of music is worth countless millions of dollars and the family has access to this revenue. It seems fundamentally wrong that this motive can be used as an argument in one direction but not the other. During Jackson's life a network of legal agreements, settlements, gagging-orders and maybe even threats was used to keep accusers silent and this behaviour has continued unabated since his death.
In London a number of buses were plastered with huge advertisements asserting that the two men were liars. Why? Jackson is dead, he's beyond the reach of the law. Why such a determined effort to declare his accusers liars?
Meanwhile statements began to emerge that the allegations, if true, would no doubt be corroborated by other victims coming forward. Why weren't other people alleging similar things? Perhaps the answer to that is because of the bus adverts, death threats, and the way that anyone coming forward would be forever identified with that one event for the rest of their lives. Perhaps people aren't eager to ride to work on a bus emblazoned with huge posters calling them liars.
Allowing our focus to rest on the 'bad apples' allows the culture of abuse, harassment and secrecy to continue without scrutiny. We can't stop the opportunists, because there will always be opportunities. We can provide transparency and safety in our hierarchies, but that will require a change in the way we do things. There are vested interests maintaining the secrecy and legal devices that currently protect the abusers, part of their methodology is directing our attention to the bad apples, where society itself cannot be held responsible even in small part.
Again and again we're putting up the wrong posters in our waiting-rooms. Let's try to make sure we don't die of meningitis while carefully checking for Dercum's Disease.