After Vice reported that attorney Jeffrey Toobin, something of a legal celebrity with gigs at CNN, bestsellers, and Hollywood optioning of those bestsellers, would be fired from his job at the New Yorker for taking out his dick during a work meeting while he thought his camera was off, America pretty much did what the situation called for—laugh and move on. Hardly the angry mob demanding Toobin’s cancelation over what New York Times calls “a Zoom incident” in its pretty blatant bid for Toobin’s forgiveness, which masquerades as yet another, completely unneccessary, “Has Cancel Culture Gone Too Far?” handwringing thinkpiece, asking Toobin’s co-workers and friends to comment on what the piece calls the “fragile boundary” between what is and is not appropriate workplace behavior during the work-form-home era. And many co-workers and friends jumped to Toobin’s defense, expressing outrage at the idea of a person being fired for unexpectedly exposing one’s genitals to co-workers during work hours, with fellow New Yorker contributor Malcolm Gladwell whipping out a Bible and comparing a lost cameo, firing, and self-requested leave of absence to an Old Testament punishment from God.
But the boundary is between masturbating in a business meeting and not masturbating in a business meeting, and the repercussions for a wealthy, celebrated public figure doing so were not “cancelation” or persecution. They were highly appropriate and fairly mild. In the wake of his Zoom masturbation, Jimmy Fallon and O.J. Simpson made fun of Toobin and he was fired from one job and placed on leave (at his own request) from CNN. That was pretty much the extent of the man’s punishment beyond missing out on a cameo in HBO’s The Undoing, which reporters at the Times seem to believe is a heartbreaking loss, mentioning it twice and calling the piece “The Undoing of Jeffery Toobin,” perhaps in reference to the lost television appearance. However, two missed opportunities are hardly a Les Miserablés-level catalog of unjust punishments for a famous and powerful man who took out his penis and stroked it in front of co-workers during a work meeting, whether he did so unwittingly or not. The Times, however, seems to be operating under the impression all of us are guilty of similar transgressions during the pandemic while scapegoating poor Toobin:
For as many people were excoriating Mr. Toobin for lewd and inappropriate behavior in a virtual workplace, others were thinking, or even saying, “there but for the grace of God go I,” acutely conscious of all the private or potentially embarrassing moments they’d stolen in this odd new zone where we now meet our colleagues.
However, most assuredly, the majority of us are not masturbating during Zoom meetings, just as most of us are not rubbing one out under our desks in the office, or heading to the communal bathrooms to whack it in a stall. Because doing so is a fireable offense—reasonably so, and within the bounds of basic respect for other human beings, even if not specifically noted as a human resources infraction. And unlike Toobin, who still has myriad movie deals and CNN to fall back on, most of us cannot financially afford to lose our jobs.
And though the Times wastes a lot of words describing Toobin’s background to paint him as a “complicated” figure, his story is actually pretty simple. He is rich; he grew up the son of rich, powerful media parents; he went to expensive prep schools and then to Harvard before joining the ruling class ranks of other dudes with nearly the exact same background who run shit and write books and get movie deals and for whom news outlets like the Times beg special consideration when they get fired after sexually harassing people or rubbing one out at work, despite both things being entirely legitimate reasons for termination of employment.
Yet Toobin is also a noted creep, as the Times alludes to without explicitly stating. As Gawker reported back in 2010, he once allegedly offered an affair partner a financial incentive to have an abortion then threatened to make her life with their child difficult when she refused, which is why so many in the media were unsurprised and “snarky,” as the Times scolds, about the latest proof that this guy sucks. But even as it castigates those who would dare titter at this newest appearance of Toobin’s dick in the headlines, simultaneously the Times undermines its whole “There but for the grace of God go I” argument by revealing that Toobin has been a creep in at least one previously unreported incident. The article states that once before, Toobin “surprised someone in the business with his sexual forwardness,” which is a strange way to phrase what really happened—a peer alleges Toobin sexually harassed her, even if she doesn’t specifically call it harassment:
“The magazine journalist Lisa DePaulo said that in 2003 Mr. Toobin asked her out for New Year’s Eve, telling her he’d separated from Ms. McIntosh. A few days after accepting, she returned home to a phone message from Mr. Toobin in which, she said, he described in vulgar terms a sex act he planned on enacting with her.” And though DePaulo “didn’t think he was a sexual predator,” telling the Times she “just thought he was a nice guy who was pervy. It was just like, ‘Jeffrey? Ick!”
And while there is, unfortunately, no recourse for dealing with a “perv” who is not a boss or co-worker asking one on a date and then masturbating into one’s inbox beyond laughing about it with friends, which DePaulo did, there is recourse for punishing a work colleague who masturbates onto one’s Zoom screen. And that recourse is in the form of firing said employee. However, the Times also managed to scrounge up some co-workers who believe Toobin’s punishment doesn’t fit the crime, despite relying on false equivalences to describe Toobin’s transgression:
“Even Mx. Gessen, who initially found the incident “traumatic,” said they now feel sympathy for Mr. Toobin. “I think it’s tragic that a guy would get fired for really just doing something really stupid,” they said. “It is the Zoom equivalent of taking an inappropriately long lunch break, having sex during it and getting stumbled upon.”
It is not the Zoom equivalent of taking a long lunch to run around the corner and fuck a mistress who is unaffiliated with the company in any way and of legal age in a Motel 6 room the company has not paid for, completely out of sight of co-workers—which is gross but does not seem firable. What Toobin did was the Zoom equivalent of removing one’s genitals from their coverings at a work meeting and fondling them in full view of co-workers because that is exactly what happened. Openly masturbating at work should be punished by termination of employment, and was. It’s not complicated. Facing appropriate consequences for one’s actions is not being “canceled,” it is being held to the same standards as everyone else. Though for rich men who were born rich, will always be rich, and see losing a cameo in HBO’s The Undoing as the worst predicament in which one could conceivably find oneself, facing a consequence for the first time ever likely becomes falsely conflated with actual persecution.