“We shouldn’t close it off and say, ‘To hell with him, rot, and go away from us for the rest of your life.’ Let’s not do that. Let’s be bigger than that,” the actor Bryan Cranston recently said in an interview with the BBC. Cranston had been asked a hypothetical question about the return of Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, two men whose abuses stand out, even in the Me Too moment, and his response was equally hypothetical. And yet, the question revealed that even in the middle of an ongoing reckoning with sexual harassment and assault, covering a range of industries, the narratives of second chances and redemption are already beginning to emerge. “It would take time, it would take a society to forgive them, and it would take tremendous contrition on their part,” Cranston said, inferring that for the “few” who can demonstrate change should be able to “reclaim their life and their dignity and their respect for others.”
If Cranston’s answer was hypothetical, then comedian Bill Burr’s opinions on Louis C.K. were not nearly as speculative. “I love Louis C.K. and that was really, obviously just a fucking hard thing to see happen to somebody,” Burr said on his podcast earlier this week. “He was 100 percent wrong, he did own up to it. And I think he will definitely be back, I will say that.” Burr engaged in familiar rhetoric, a reference “witch hunts” and appealing to “due process.” “This kind of seems like it’s become...it doesn’t make a difference if it’s sexual misconduct, all the way to sexual assault/rape,” Burr said. “You’re getting the exact same level of punishment. [Louis C.K.] was definitely wrong, obviously. This is all obvious shit that I’m saying, but does the punishment match the crime?”
Comments like those of Cranston and Burr are representative, in some respect, of what comes after Me Too; representative too of these fleeting moments of what’s often described as solidarity. Moments like Me Too, like Yes All Women and even I Believe Anita Hill, are often treated as tidal waves or tsunamis (the media is fond of storm-related analogies), an unpredictable surge that should devastation in its wake. But while they may be a force, their effect never seems to have the intended lasting impact. And that’s often because of reasoning much like Cranston and Burr—among others.
It’s imperative to examine these narratives of redemption, already emerging, because they minimize abuse in order to return to the natural way of things, to preserve power for the already powerful, and reinvest in the institutions that have fostered cultures of gender-based discrimination or abuse.
The sexual harassment/assault statement has quickly become an emerging literary genre. Its stock phrases are already familiar: “If the allegations are true,” or “I don’t remember” or, more straightforward, “This is a smear campaign.” The statement allows the accused to move on but it’s little more than a gesture of accountability that says little and demands even less. The stock phrases of the apology are of a kind, they are, in their details, fundamental denials. While they might offer sentiment, they make no demands on the accused.
“The boundaries are already blurring,” Masha Gessen wrote in a recent piece at the New Yorker. Gessen was pointing to what she described as a “sex panic,” ostensibly occurring right now that began as “actual crimes but led to outsize penalties and, more importantly, to a generalized sense of danger.” The sex panic is evidenced by the “consequences” now suffered by Harvey Weinstein, journalist Matt Taibbi, and Louis C.K. What these consequences are exactly is hard to identify—Weinstein and Louis C.K. have lost work and money, while Taibbi has endured some thinkpieces, tweets, and responded to some difficult questions (questions that have circulated across the internet every other year or so). But, more broadly, the point is that Taibbi’s satirical sexual harassment and Louis C.K.’s sexual misconduct pale in comparison to Weinstein; their inclusion in this moment of reckoning, Gessen argues, amounts to the blurring of boundaries.
Gessen is hardly alone in this standard, one that positions Weinstein as the point of departure for all sexual harassment and assault stories. It’s a standard that demands the abuse of nearly twenty women before accountability for gendered discrimination is even considered appropriately newsworthy rather than simply a panic. Gessen is right that sexual assault and sexual harassment are not synonymous—surely readers can and should differentiate between the two—but the newsworthiness of gender-based discrimination shouldn’t be measured against the immense brutality of Harvey Weinstein. It’s a rhetorical flourish that excuses every behavior that isn’t criminal, and a slippage of the very philosophical boundaries it seeks to enforce.
“People, this is America, remember? Due process?” Burr said in his podcast. Burr was defending his manager, whom he shared with Louis C.K. and who some have implicated in the protection of C.K. as rumors of his behavior circulated long before the New York Times released its report. Gessen, too, offered a far more sophisticated iteration of this defense, conflating mass incarceration with Title IX, and the “sex panic” of the post-Weinstein moment. Here, consequences of job loss and angry internet users are treated with the same broad stroke as a government that oversteps its constitutional boundaries and criminalizes certain sexual behavior. Gessen sees Title IX, with its preponderance of evidence standard, as part and parcel of the “sex panic” she describes. “The affirmative-consent and preponderance-of-the-evidence regimes shift the burden of proof from the accuser to the accused, eliminating the presumption of innocence,” she writes, never pausing to consider that jail, suspension or expulsion from school, or job loss are hardly synonymous, or that their long-term repercussions are the same
Rather what’s at issue here is civil rights—freedom from discrimination in the form of harassment because of gender or sex. This argument relies on the concept of “policing”—a view that society has been reduced to “policing sex” but lacks the rational standard of due process found in a court. It’s unclear what policing is taking place—Weinstein may be charged with a crime, but that’s still a maybe and no one to my knowledge has been arrested. Conjuring up institutions constructed for the discrimination of the marginalized for the preservation of other forms of power (wielded with clear discriminatory intent) seems like more than a rhetorical leap.
I’ve written about this before (many, many times before) but the “witch hunt” narrative that treats this moment has inherently irrational with no respect for the rule of law, and lacking any reflection of long-term consequences, is bound to a history too unfriendly to prove useful.
Never forget that this moment has required an outpouring of victims and a certain spectacle of the shocking to demand this attention. The real peril of the aforementioned apologies are that they stand to leave this crucial moment unfinished, the systems that foster abuse may be damaged, but are still standing. Reckoning turns quickly to redemption, and the work of justice—particularly gendered justice—remains unfinished. It’s too early to wonder about the futures of Louis C.K. or even the men on the Shitty Media Men list—when there are still so many predators, institution, and systemic failures that have been left out of the reckoning.