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Thursday, November 30, 2017

Workplace Sexual Harassment Epidemic Misses Chance To Address Larger Issues

The current news "wave" of sexual harassment allegations against high-profile elected officials and media celebrities is not about redress for the victims.

It should be about creating safer workplaces for women -- and also, for men. This is a stated goal from some corners, but it is unlikely to occur. That's because, unfortunately, the true objective from many other corners is quite different and one which overlooks and ignores victims as mere individuals, little more than collateral damage, but they are useful for the role they play here. Arguably, it's double victimization.

Without the victims, who will soon be forgotten (although their already-sustained consequences will linger), and without the appalling (and in at least one case, likely criminally indictable) sexual misbehavior of these predators (some of whom have admitted indirectly to some allegations), the larger but hidden agenda at work cannot be advanced and achieved. 

The indefensible nature of the behavior is necessary. It supports the horrible accusations, so often made with full knowledge of their falsity but nonetheless useful for intimidation, that anyone raising questions about evidence, the credibility of accusers (years if not decades after the fact) or the cultural standards for defining sanctionable, punishable offenses, never mind actual culpability, is essentially condoning, approving or even participating in the even more horrible behavior.  

The conflation between just highly-inappropriate (and flatly boorish) behavior, which behavior often crosses into the illegal in the workplace and can easily turn into criminal, is also with a purpose. Confusing the population as to what behavior is "allowed" is useful fosters apprehension, insecurity and indecisiveness, weakening any sense of a universally-accepted (and respected) "bright line" standard (whether legal or cultural) for behavior. As legal and cultural uncertainty grows, the "accepted" standard becomes that which is set by the loudest and boldest voices.

Unfortunately, the risk of undermining general respect for the law, and for authority, in our society will be stoked by such passions.

When that respect is diminished, respect for standards of behavior gets reduced as well. This is true, whether the standards are "set" by generally-shared cultural norms or by state law.

The real tragedy here is that we have seen the powerful exercise abuses of power. These abuses involve much more than misconduct which contains a sensational, sexual component, and they involve much more than celebrity wrongdoers whose actions would not generate media attention if they were not celebrity names.

The shame and missed opportunity is that the general topics of abuse of power in the workplace, and of outrageously abusive behavior in general across society, will be ignored.

Perhaps that's because there are too many other people who are benefiting from those abuses.

Who will speak for their victims?

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