Thursday 16 November 2017

My interview with HuffPo reporter Dana Liebelson

I was contacted by a reporter for Huffington Post a few days ago, and gave her an interview by email. The article is now up, and I'd like to acknowledge that she was fair in her quoting of my comments. 

I would, however, like to post the entire interview here, since very little of what I told her actually made it to print. Her questions/comments are in bluish, my responses are in black:

Hi Karen, I hope you are doing well! I'm a reporter with the Huffington Post, and I'm working on a story talking to Men's Rights Activists & some other folks about the recent wave of women coming forward with sexual harassment and abuse allegations post-Weinstein. (With, as you know, men facing serious professional and personal repercussions.) I wanted to see if you might be able to do a short interview. I'm including my questions below if you prefer email, otherwise let me now if you'd like to set up a time by phone. Thanks so much! Best, Dana 

Hi again Dana. I’m sorry if my answers here are very very long. Like I said, my views on this subject are complicated. I don’t know whether I’ve given you anything you can really work with, but I hope they make my positions clear (even when the positions themselves are muddy). This is not an easy issue. There are women who are genuinely victims of men’s sexual misconduct. There are reasons I support a presumption of innocence and a high burden of proof when people are accused of misconduct. I wish I could be more concise.


What do you make of the allegations against Harvey Weinstein? Do you think he should have been fired from the Weinstein company or faced any other repercussions regarding the allegations? Why or why not? 

Many of the allegations seem credible, for sure. Certainly, the fact that there’s corroboration from witnesses other than the accusers adds to that credibility. Whether or not the allegations themselves indicate acts that rise to the level of criminal sexual assault or harassment, companies have a moral and legal responsibility to enforce ethical business practices among their employees and officers. 

I’m certain there are women in Hollywood who would view the “casting couch” as being of benefit to them—a useful tool of advancement in their careers—and who might be happy extending the offer of sex in a tit for tat exchange of favours. There will be many, many women who do not feel this way. 

The existence of this first group of women, and of men like Weinstein who are happy to take them up on the offer, place the latter group of women (who, I would hazard to guess, are more numerous) in the untenable position of being expected to engage in this exchange if they want to forward their careers at all. 

Megalomaniacs (narcissistic sociopaths) like Weinstein appears to be seem to see no difference between the "voluntary prostitution” of women who willingly “sleep their way to the top" and “sex trafficking” of unwilling women who just want to earn their way up the ladder. 

Unfortunately for everyone, megalomaniacs tend to rise to positions of power (because they actively and often ruthlessly pursue power), and they can make life a living hell for the people who are forced to interact with them. The allegations of his sexual misconduct are only one piece of a more general pattern of his abuse of power, and his abuse of those under his power. He also had a reputation for tyrannical, coercive, vindictive and even physically violent behaviour against both men and women he felt had crossed him. People of both sexes went along with it because to do otherwise would bring his wrath on them. 

As you know, there have been many women coming forward to accuse high-profile men of harassment/abuse since Weinstein, with many of the accused facing job and personal repercussions. What do you make of this trend? 

It is, indeed, a trend. This is not to say that all of the allegations against other men are frivolous or spurious, though I believe that some of them are likely to be. The more the media sensationalizes the issue, and in particular, the more it finds its way into the outrage mill of social media, the greater the proportion of “bandwagoners” will probably be. The more praise and validation the women who have justifiably come forward receive from the public, the more likely it is that we’ll see others making false claims of victimization. 

For men who make such claims, I necessarily hold less skepticism. This is not because I believe men are more honest than women, but because there is less to be gained from coming forward. I recall Corey Feldman coming forward after Corey Haim’s death, to talk about the “casting couch” that exists for even child actors. He was accused, by Barbara Walters on national TV, of personally “destroying an entire industry” by exposing what had happened to him and others. 

Why do you think these women are coming forward now, when they didn't before?

I think it was a simple cost/benefit/risk analysis, just like it was for the people who enabled Weinstein to continue. Some of the women brought legal action against him, signed non-disclosure agreements, collected their payoffs and avoided the reputation annihilation Weinstein was able to inflict. Their willingness to do so perpetuated the culture. From a broader standpoint, they did the wrong thing. From an individual standpoint, perhaps they believed they were doing the only thing they could. It’s clear Weinstein didn’t see these settlements as punitive—to someone with his money and power, they’d be viewed as little more than the cost of getting laid. 

And I suppose I can sit here and say that the victims who took a payoff in return for their silence are partly responsible for all his future victims, and yes, I do believe that’s the case. But I can also look at the position they were in and ask, “would I have been willing to sacrifice everything I’d worked for on the off chance it would end like David and Goliath, rather than with me getting squashed like a bug? Maybe a couple hundred grand in my pocket and a vow of silence is the better option.”

I think it’s important to note that the Weinstein allegations did not emerge one at a time. Investigative journalists worked on the story for a long time, talking to lots of people (many of them off the record or anonymously), and following a bread crumb trail of sealed settlements and gag orders. The story did not break with just one victim making an accusation about just one incident. The initial story allowed the victims to disclose in safety to someone who believed them, and when public disclosure happened they had the strength of numbers behind them, and the legitimacy of a lengthy NYTimes piece. 

This very brief video, by Steven Pinker, explains why it had to happen the way it did:

Weinstein was clearly a dictator, and he had no qualms whatsoever about picking off dissenters one at a time. You want to bring down a dictator, you need a metaphorical crowd of people assembled in a figurative public square.

How do you define sexual harassment,

That depends. Between individuals of relatively equal status, I believe harassment can only happen if the sexual advances or sexualized language are both unwanted and sustained over some period of time. One unwanted sexual advance that isn’t repeated isn’t enough for me to consider it harassment in such a case. 

The elements of Weinstein’s case don’t fit that general profile, but I would still call them harassment. His behaviour was clearly predatory, even if the women still technically had the option of declining his advances. He set things up in such a way as to increase their vulnerability and their perceptions of his power, and lead them to believe that declining his advances was not an option. Paltrow and Jolie were able to do so because they already had lots of credits under their belts and were part of powerful friend/family networks in Hollywood. 

Orchestrating a situation in which you intentionally manipulate your victim into believing that they will suffer penalties if they don’t have sex with you, and that you are capable of inflicting those penalties, is also harassment in my mind.

and what kind of bar do you think should be met in order for it be substantiated? 

The bar will depend on which institution is considering it. If Weinstein were to be criminally prosecuted, I would want the allegations to meet a higher burden because the penalties involved are high. That burden is rightly set lower in a civil court. 

I believe companies should investigate such claims before taking punitive action, not only because some claims are spurious but because false accusations can themselves be a method of harassment (sometimes people will use false accusations of harassment to perpetrate harassment). I don’t give Weinstein’s company much credit for firing him, since there’s every indication they knew what was going on and did nothing for years. They only fired him when it became public, which shows nothing good regarding their virtues or their ethics. 

And here’s where it gets tricky. I was sexually harassed by the chef de partie at my workplace when I was a cook at age 21. The guy was, like Weinstein, just 100% toxic altogether, and abusive to LOTS of people. I eventually quit, and applied for Unemployment Insurance. The employer contested the claim, leading me into a four year process of fighting to get my benefits. Why? Because they believed that any substantiated allegation of sexual harassment at their company would reflect poorly on them. They decided it would be more expedient to bury the allegations in mounds of red tape and obstructionism than admit publicly not only that something like that had happened on their watch, but that they had promoted this guy, despite several complaints of general bad conduct (bullying, etc), into a position of authority.

On the bright side, my daughter (she’s 22) experienced prolonged and repeated unwanted sexual advances and inappropriate touching (of her hair) from an equal status coworker at her job at Walmart. When she brought it to her manager’s attention, they jumped on it immediately. Immediate scheduling measures were undertaken to ensure that she and the guy in question were never working in the same department, and never arriving or leaving at the same time. Within a couple days, they had someone from regional HR in to interview both of them. I attended that meeting with her, and they took her concerns seriously and they also took her requests seriously—she did not want the guy to be fired (he’s an unskilled refugee who speaks little English and comes from a completely different culture), she only wanted the behaviour to stop. It’s been a year, he’s still working there, and she’s had no problems since.

Are there any of these high-profile cases in the last month where you think the accused should have faced repercussions for alleged behavior? If so, please explain when and why. 

I think many, if not most or all, of them have faced repercussions. I expect that some of those repercussions might not match the severity of the offence. This is the double edged sword we’re dealing with when allegations like this become a trend (or even fashionable). Weinstein was, from what I’ve ascertained, a serial sexual harasser and sexual predator, as well as a tyrant and a bully. His head should metaphorically roll, and it certainly has in terms of his career and reputation. Does this mean that every man who ever propositioned a woman for casual sex in Hollywood should face the same axe?

The situation is complicated. Is every rock star who has sex with a groupie who threw herself at him guilty of some type of misconduct? What if the groupie who aggressively pursued a liaison last night feels used afterward? Is he somehow culpable for accepting sex that was enthusiastically on offer last night, because she feels bad about it in the morning? How do we navigate a situation where, cross-culturally, women in general are sexually attracted to powerful men? Is it NEVER okay for a powerful man to engage in sexual behaviour with a woman less powerful than him? Is it only okay if she feels good about herself afterwards? What about office romances that turn into long term relationships or even marriages? Did they all begin with sexual harassment? What about women who intentionally sexualize their appearance at work and then complain when a man looks at them or asks them for a date?

Do you see this as any kind of culture shift?

Weinstein’s company was as happy to bury the allegations as my employer was back in 1992, for as long as they could keep them buried. What has happened in Hollywood doesn’t represent a cultural shift in my mind—at least, not in the way my daughter’s complaint to Walmart does.

A proper cultural shift would mean companies would do what Walmart did: take her allegations seriously when they were made, take immediate, non-punitive action toward prevention of further behaviour, investigate as fairly and expediently as possible, and when a finding was made, take measures to put the offender on notice and stop his behaviour. 

What is being perpetuated in media right now over this Weinstein thing is that the companies involved somehow didn’t realize that this kind of conduct is scummy, gross and harmful. That they thought it was okay. But that’s not the problem. The problem I see is that THEY KNOW THIS KIND OF THING IS WRONG. If they didn’t know it was wrong, they wouldn’t be interested in burying it behind a dozen closed settlements involving monetary payoffs and non-disclosure agreements, and general employee non-disparagement agreements. 

The culture has always known that this kind of behaviour is the behaviour of sleaze bags. It’s why Weinstein had to threaten people’s careers to keep it all quiet and ticking along. It’s why his company paid women off to keep them quiet. It’s why the moment the allegations came out, pretty much the entirety of mainstream and social media condemned Weinstein.

The behaviour could only continue if it was hidden from the public. That is because the general culture does NOT see this behaviour as acceptable.

What I am seeing is kind of the opposite of what many in the media are portraying it as. The sexual victimization of women, by coercion or force, is not normalized. In Hollywood, it was an open secret, but it could only continue as long as it was SOME kind of secret, or if it could be glossed over. 

The cultural shift I would like to see is one where such allegations are taken seriously when they are made. By seriously, I don’t mean “believe the victim” and start the lynching. What I would like to see is less emotionality and more due process. If admitting that one of your company directors sexually harassed or coerced women didn’t evoke such public outrage, perhaps more companies would be willing to address the problem. 

There is a stigma attached to this issue that prevents disclosure and the proper and timely addressing of the problem. That stigma is not only the stigma attached to victims, but the stigma attached to perpetrators and their enablers. Considering the sexual victimization of women as a “special” offence worthy of “special” outrage, is in my mind part of the problem. No one wants to believe it happened because it’s so incredibly heinous, but then when the burden is finally met and people are convinced, their reaction is over the top and doesn’t necessarily fit the crime.

In the United States, the rape of a woman was one of the last non-lethal offences that could get you the death penalty. The severity of the punishment is often a barrier to conviction. If you had to sit on a jury and decide whether a man would go to the gallows, I would hope you’d want to be convinced to a higher degree than if he was facing 18 months in prison. 

How do you see this impacting the movement to end sex discrimination against men and boys? 

If this helps Corey Feldman and others like him to get media attention on the child actor casting couch and have his allegations taken seriously, I see that as positive. But I see it as more likely to turn into a witch hunt where every allegation of sexual misconduct against a man in Hollywood will require immediate and summary conviction in the court of public opinion. 

Please don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful that the media has shed a light on Weinstein’s behaviour and condemned it. But those allegations were subjected to an intense scrutiny prior to publication. Allegations against other men following in Weinstein’s wake will not be subjected to the same scrutiny before being assumed to be genuine. This has been portrayed as a systemic problem in Hollywood, and I believe it is systemic. But once a “systemic” abuse has been exposed (accurately or otherwise), it becomes very easy to assume that anyone accused is by default guilty. After all, they were part of the system. 

If you want to see what I mean, you can read the history of the McMartin daycare Satanic sexual abuse scandal, and how more than a hundred people were prosecuted on no credible evidence whatsoever. The media grabbed the story and portrayed it as systemic and commonplace, an “open secret”, and innocent people were fed into a meat grinder that destroyed lives. Calls for calm, evidence and due process were met with accusations of apologia and the social and professional destruction of the individuals making them.

Do you think this trend is going to impact how men act in the workplace? Why or why not? Do you see that as problematic? 

Of course it will. Men have been taking measures in the workplace to avoid spurious allegations of sexual misconduct for a long time. I have an uncle who was a middle school teacher all his life until his retirement more than ten years ago. He initially scoffed at what I do. Then I asked him, “did you ever meet with a female student or colleague without the door open or someone else present?” He sat for a few moments and thought about it. “Well, of course I never did that. I wouldn’t want to be accused of anything. You always kind of know that’s a possibility if you can’t prove what you were doing at any given time. You always want to have someone there who can back you up.”

It had never really occurred to him that this was something he had to do as a man that he wouldn’t have had to do if he wasn’t a man. 

Men have reason to feel vulnerable to accusations of sexual misconduct. The more men they see publicly run up a gibbet without due process, the more they will distance themselves from women in the workplace.

And of course I see this as problematic. I wish Weinstein’s early victims had gone to the DA. I wish the DA had not been in Weinstein’s pocket. I wish that powerful, wealthy people couldn’t buy their way out of trouble. I wish I could say I don’t believe that innocent people will be caught up in the fallout from these revelations. And I wish the men, watching all of this go down and all of these heads rolling, were not correct in seeing the women around them as making them vulnerable to undeserved punishment. 

Marie Heinen, defence counsel for Jian Ghomeshi in one of Canada’s most highly publicized sexual assault trials, has gone on record as saying that when we set aside due process, it never ends well for the marginalized. A “lynching culture” may take out a few deserving Harvey Weinsteins, but it will take out a LOT of men who are not deserving, and who don’t have the kind of power and money necessary to defend themselves.

What's your take on the #MeToo campaign?  

It’s a mass “nodding” session. Campaigns like this are usually well intentioned in their conception, but they turn into a big back-patting party, where no one actually has to do anything but disclose “yeah, I’m a victim too.” It raises awareness, sure, but it doesn’t solve anything. Life, and in particular sex, is more complicated than 140 characters can convey. Nuance doesn’t lend itself to hashtag campaigns. Sloganeering can’t replace rational and fair-minded policy. 

And where are you based, and how would you describe your title & views? 

I’m based in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, and I describe myself as an anti-feminist and men’s rights activist. 

Hi Karen, thanks so much for all of this! I do think it's helpful, and I'll definitely quote from in my story. (To get at the nuance, which you point out.) 

I did have one other question, which you kind of touched upon, but do you think there's going to be any backlash to this wave of women coming forward? (Or are we already seeing it?) And if so, what do you think could spark that backlash, and what do you think it will look like? (I was thinking of the Rebecca Traistor piece today, she wrote: "“You can feel the backlash brewing. All it will take is one particularly lame allegation — and given the increasing depravity of the charges, the milder stuff looks lamer and lamer, no matter how awful the experience — to turn the tide from deep umbrage on behalf of women to pity.") 

Traistor seems somewhat prescient, as far as I’m concerned, although I would have to read her entire piece to understand that last remark (about pity). I suppose it is pitiable if women are complaining about mundane inconveniences, though that’s been around for a long time in some areas of the public discourse. And we have seen #MeToo start to get cluttered up with more trivial stories. We have seen some people in media express annoyance at this for trivializing the issue.

But a backlash isn’t constructed out of pity, it’s constructed out of anger. There are some parts of the discussion that seem predestined to generate that anger and to justify it.

“Toxic masculinity.” Whether intentionally or not, and whether it in the technical sense does so or not, this term is perceived to apply a collective blame on all men for the behaviour of men like Weinstein. The “patriarchy” narrative as applied by feminist pundits does nothing to reassure the average man that he is not being blamed, either. If patriarchy is a system where men hold power and women are largely excluded from it, then by extrapolation one must blame men collectively for the harms caused by the system they alone constructed and only they can change.

“White male entitlement.” Certainly this too appears to implicate all white men in things like Weinstein’s behaviour. Like we saw with some of the pieces on James Damore, those focussing most heavily on the problem being “white guys” are often going to be white men themselves. 

These aspects of the discourse put a lot of men in the position of wasting all their energy on #NotMe rather than #HowCanIHelp, unless, of course, #HowCanIHelp involves bashing other whites guys to make oneself look virtuous and enlightened. Everyone ends up either prosecuting or defending masculinity and, again, nothing useful gets done, because it’s not “masculinity” that made Weinstein into the scumbag he is, nor was it “masculine culture” that informed his various enablers. The culture was created out of absolute power corrupting absolutely, and everyone else going along with it because to do otherwise would mean career annihilation. And as with any violation of moral boundaries, the more often you do it the easier it usually gets.

And of course, all that needs to happen is for a handful of bandwagoning women to level accusations that turn out to be demonstrably false, and the entire edifice will collapse. If such a thing happens, you might even see a popular toxic femininity narrative born out of it (and no, I wouldn’t object to such a thing). Part of the fragility of this phenomenon is the way it’s been spun in media by people with agendas. When the “experts” assign a cause, and that cause turns out to be bogus, the entire phenomenon ends up discredited. To simplify, reductio ad absurdum: someone says, “Rape is caused by X.” People might reply, “Uh…but X doesn’t exist. And some of the people who claimed rape were lying. Therefore, maybe rape doesn’t exist.” 

There are genuine measures that can be taken to deal with these problems and help prevent similar ones in the future. Procedural rules can be required of companies when complaints are made, with genuine, balanced investigations being undertaken. NDAs can be prohibited by law when allegations rise to the level of criminal acts. Companies can be forbidden by law to include indiscriminate non-disparagement clauses in their employee contracts that enact penalties over any negative public disclosure, true or not. It can be made functionally as well as technically illegal for any person, no matter how wealthy, to own a district attorney. Sovereign immunity can be put to a legal challenge, and limitations assigned to its protections when DAs either maliciously prosecute or knowingly and with malice look the other way when crimes are being committed.

None of these measures necessarily involve considering sexual harassment or sexual violence to be uniquely monstrous acts. In fact, some of them depend on people looking at the problem in a calm, rational way, untainted by emotionality. They would help more than just victims of sexual harassment, but also victims of other workplace exploitations and abuses. These are genuine legal and due process fixes that do not compromise the rights of the accused or the dignity of victims. They are concrete and institutional (changes to the law), not amorphous and ephemeral (dismantling “patriarchy”). The former contributes to a culture of dignity and law. The latter contributes to a “lynching culture” where the accusation is the conviction and no one pauses to look around until the bodies have piled up.

I do believe there need to be some structural changes made. I worry that the ones that could be most effective will be overlooked in favour of those that would give angry people hungry for blood immediate satiation. You were accused? Say goodbye to your career and welcome to Social Pariahville, population growing. 

And I suppose if there’s one silver lining for men’s rights in how this has all played out, amid the “brave" Twitter bandwagon hashtag slacktivists, the genuine slime balls who’ve been ousted from their positions of untouchable power, and the petty offenders who’ll be caught up in this bid to purge Hollywood of anyone who’s ever upset a woman… I guess Corey Feldman’s allegations are finally getting some traction. Another former child actor came forward with an allegation, and after a bit of the mainstream media minimizing it, it's being taken somewhat seriously. 

It just makes me sad that it took these allegations against Weinstein regarding his sexual misconduct with adult women to open the door to the public caring about allegations that have been out there for years about the sexual abuse of children in Hollywood. That the Corey Feldmans of the world need to piggyback on the victimization of grown women before anyone was willing to take a serious look at what happened to them, and to their friends, when they were vulnerable children.

Anyway. Sorry this went long again. I’ve probably answered more than you wanted to know.