“Be kind to everybody. Make art and fight the power.” (Colson Whitehead)
Every day, there’s a new one, a new allegation of sexual harassment, abuse, or misconduct, by a person in a position of power toward someone he holds power over. The perpetrator is invariably male, and his victim is usually—but not always—female. This is nothing new. It’s been going on for . . . well, probably forever.
We see it in politics, entertainment and sports, the military, academia, corporate settings, and anywhere else where people work or interact.
Is the Tide Turning?
It seems, though, that we’re beginning to see some changes. People who have been preyed upon are speaking out. The tactics abusers relied on to keep them quiet and to disguise repeat behaviors and patterns—legal settlements, money, threats against career, intimidation, warnings of backlash—are losing their power to silence and shame. Women are speaking their truth. They’re claiming their power, and they aren’t backing down.
The shame women (this includes exploited boys and men) have felt—sometimes for decades—is giving way to an understanding that they have nothing to be ashamed of. They are survivors, they are strong, and they are courageous. As more women say “me, too,” shame loses its might. Strength and resolve take hold.
I don’t like the word “victim,” it carries a lot of baggage. It implies weakness, when, in fact, carrying scars of abuse and speaking out are strengths beyond measure.
It does feel like a tide is finally turning, but before we congratulate ourselves too much on starting down the road to remedy long-overdue injustices, we need to recognize just how tenuous this path is.
There are still situations where it may not be “convenient” to condemn a predator, where some prefer to give them a pass. Take the case of Alabama Senatorial candidate Roy Moore. Five credible women have gone on record describing his sexual advances and predatory behavior toward them when they were teenagers—one as young as 14. There are numerous corroborating witnesses, more than 30 sources total. Yet there remain many people for whom it is more important to elect the ultra-conservative Moore to the Senate than to denounce his vile behavior.
For the people who still support Roy Moore, maintaining their “club” is more important than upholding justice, recognizing truth, or righting wrongs. The “club” may be white nationalism, it may be evangelical Christianity, it may be holding a Republican majority at any cost. Regardless, it’s the club that matters. To these women, and to future victims, they’re saying: You don’t matter.
When people deliberately choose not to believe women or evidence that’s clear and compelling, what message are they sending to children? We want you to speak up if someone tries to hurt you, but be prepared to be disbelieved, shunned, or dismissed if the person wields power, or if your truth is inconvenient.
Want another example? Look no further than the White House. That we elected a predator to the highest and most honored office in the land is our nation’s shame. But one we have the power to rectify.
Is Harassment Training the Answer?
Elsewhere, in our haste to fix, patch, and even minimize a problem we can no longer deny or hide, sexual harassment trainings are being looked to as the solution. Congress has deemed that all lawmakers and their staffs must undergo harassment training. Corporate America and the military are embracing harassment education and training as the solution to the endemic ill-treatment that plagues their workplaces.
That’ll fix things. Those who transgressed in the past, or who stood by and ignored or allowed the predatory behaviors of others, will see the error of their ways, express contrition, and we’ll all link arms (wait, no touching!) and advance together into a future devoid of harassment or abuse. Kumbaya, indeed!
I don’t mean to minimize the importance of sexual harassment training, but anyone who sees it as a panacea that will rout these long-standing, firmly entrenched behaviors is minimizing an enormously complex problem, and is also more than a little bit naïve.
This problem needs to be addressed long before people enter the workplace. It probably needs to be addressed in utero. How we raise our sons and daughters determines how they will behave as adults. What messages are we sending them when they see boys praised for what they do and girls praised for how they look? What messages are we sending when noisy girls are shushed and boisterous boys are encouraged?
I heard a brief, but interesting story on NPR’s Morning Edition the other day. Marketplace senior reporter Sabri Ben-Achour was speaking with Vicki Magley, professor of psychology at the University of Connecticut, about the implementation of sexual harassment trainings in the workplace.
Magley cautioned that there is still very limited research about the effectiveness of such trainings. Initial outcomes haven’t been all that encouraging. In some cases, training leads to a backlash. Their effectiveness in changing behavior is uncertain and dependent upon whether the organizational culture is perceived as ethical or not by the employees.
In essence, if employees feel the training they are required to take is only window dressing—the company’s way of meeting an obligation or protecting its corporate ass—and it doesn’t truly represent the views and commitment of the organization, they are unlikely to take the training seriously or to respond in any meaningful ways.
Magley cited a 2016 EEOC report which also showed mixed results from harassment training, and suggested that it might be more effective to shift the focus from harassment to civility.
Magley noted, “When you enter into [a training program] prepared to be told that you’ve been naughty, you go in cynical.”
But if you shift the paradigm: “When you enter into a training scenario where you’re being told explicitly that we’re going to give you ideas on how to create community, on how to bond with one another in productive, cohesive collaborative kinds of ways,” it changes the mindset. The training is viewed as an opportunity for growth and professional advancement, rather than as punishment.
This makes so much sense, but again, we mustn’t wait until boys and girls become men and women and join the workforce. Civility must be instilled from the moment they begin to walk and talk. Parents must model these values and teachers must impart them—over and over again until civility and kindness become as elemental as our need for oxygen.
It starts with civility . . . . It starts with kindness.
“Many men fail because they do not see the importance of being kind and courteous to the men under them. Kindness to everybody always pays for itself. And, besides, it is a pleasure to be kind.” (Charles M. Schwab)