SYNDICATED COLUMN: Call H.R.? Why Not the Cops? The Weird Politics of Sexual Harassment

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/5/5e/Kevin_Spacey_%40_San_Diego_Comic-Con_2008_-_b.jpg/170px-Kevin_Spacey_%40_San_Diego_Comic-Con_2008_-_b.jpg            When the Kevin Spacey story first broke, he stood accused of one act of wrongdoing: aggressively hitting on a 14-year-old boy.

If true, this is wrong. Very wrong. Obviously. Adults shouldn’t proposition children. But this happened more than 30 years ago. The nature of the response — Netflix distanced itself from the star of its hit show “House of Cards” by announcing its previously secret decision to end the series next year — seems like the wrong response to the actor’s behavior…and one that has become all too typical.

Bear in mind, this was before other people stepped forward to say Spacey had sexually harassed them. Some of Spacey’s accusers worked on “House of Cards.” After that, Netflix would have been derelict not to put Spacey on hiatus as the accusations get sorted out, and to fire him for creating a toxic work environment for its current employees. Which is what it did.

Sexual harassers getting their just comeuppance is a good thing. It is decades, centuries, millennia overdue. What I can’t figure is, why is the knee-jerk response to these accusations, the standard-issue form of social shaming in the 21st century, to fire them from their jobs — including jobs where they didn’t do anything wrong?

The NYPD may file criminal charges against Harvey Weinstein, whose name will for the forseeable future be preceded by the phrase “disgraced Hollywood producer.” But Weinstein is an exception. For most men accused of sexual harassment and assault during this post-Weinstein outcry, the standard demand is: fire him!

Depriving a man (or woman, if that happens) of their livelihood in response to piggishness seems both too little and too much.

For victims, the knowledge that their attacker lost their job hardly rises to the level of even minimal justice. Nor does it protect other women from falling prey as well. Any sanction short of a prison term for a rapist or a big-time sexual harasser is bound to feel trivial, as though society doesn’t weigh victimhood, as if victims are disposable.

For the falsely accused (e.g., the University of Virginia, probably also the Columbia student accused by a famously mattress-toting classmate), being deprived of a livelihood for a crime they didn’t commit is egregious. We live in a capitalist society without a minimal safety net, so losing your job can — if you are unable to find a new one — quite literally kill you.

Unless the incident occurs on the job, the connection between employment and sexual harassment and rape is as arbitrary and odd as that between employment and healthcare. If a society determines that healthcare is important, it should be available to everyone, not just workers fortunate enough to land a 40-hour-a-week job working at a company big enough to offer a health plan. Similarly, what does sexually harassing 30-plus years ago at a private party — yes, even a boy — have to do with Spacey’s then-current gig with Netflix?

It didn’t turn out to be the case, but try to imagine that the entire brief against Spacey had never expanded beyond Anthony Rapp’s tweet, which describes an incident that Spacey claims he doesn’t recall. It’s safe to say Spacey’s character on “House of Cards” would have been killed off. Spacey probably would have lost other jobs. He would likely have had trouble finding work in the future. You might say good, who cares? But this outcome would have been fair neither to Rapp nor to Spacey.

If Rapp is telling the truth, it would be better for that truth to be determined by the courts, should he decide to file charges. Statues of limitation are challenging in these cases, but the solution is for state legislatures to fix that problem, and for prosecutors to be induced to go after cases tougher than a slamdunk. As it is, political leaders are abdicating justice to social media lynch mobs and employers. There are also civil courts, where the standard of proof is lower.

As far as Spacey goes, is it ethical to take money out of his pocket over an accusation that has never been tried, much less proven, by a judge or jury?

On the other side of the coin, Fox News waited way too long to fire Bill O’Reilly and Roger Ailes. I’m not typically sympathetic to corporations or their bottom lines, but if I’m the boss at a company, anyone who forces my organization to pay a multimillion-dollar settlement to a sexual harassment victim — because, let’s face it, corporations only pay when they’re guilty — is out the door before it happens again. Mark Halperin allegedly harassed women at ABC; ABC’s firing thus seems cut and dry.

Of the recent firings, NPR handled things better than most. Michael Oreskes hung on to his job as long as his accusers were out of his past, from his previous position at the New York Times. They let him go after a female NPR staffer said he’d harassed her.

These cases of sexual harassment and assault are more straightforward from a human-resources point of view: employers must not permit a hostile work environment. That requires them to fire harassers. But this does not go far enough. What of their victims? Is victims’ only recourse to sue in civil court, or try to get a book published? Here too, we need to adjust the criminal justice system to a post-“Mad Men” world that understands the toxic effects of workplace harassment. Bill O’Reilly probably misses his job, but he’s still rich and life goes on.

As I’ve written before, employers have way too much power over workers. While bosses have every right — and the duty — to fire those who abuse other employees at their current workplace, they shouldn’t be allowed to punish anyone for actions, no matter how heinous, that took place outside the workplace or at a previous job. Otherwise we wind up with insane politically-oriented censorship firings like the case of the neo-Nazi dude who never shared his views at his job at a pizzeria, yet got canned after he was photographed in Charlottesville, and the liberal woman whose marketing company employer let her go after she gave the finger to Trump’s motorcade — while biking, not at work.

Sexual harassers and assaulters should face prison time. So should false accusers. But bosses need to mind their own business — at their own business.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall) is author of “Trump: A Graphic Biography,” an examination of the life of the Republican presidential nominee in comics form. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

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14 thoughts on “SYNDICATED COLUMN: Call H.R.? Why Not the Cops? The Weird Politics of Sexual Harassment

    • Well, as Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper said, “[T]his important conversation … is actually about harassment and abuse, not encounters between consenting adults.”

  1. What I can’t figure is, why is the knee-jerk response to these accusations, the standard-issue form of social shaming in the 21st century, to fire them from their jobs — including jobs where they didn’t do anything wrong?

    In case this isn’t fully rhetorical: I think the answer is mostly ass-covering. Same thing when there is a bomb threat – even when there is clearly nothing to it, some attempt at humor, some harmless schizophrenic person – authorities will feel compelled to act (e.g. evacuate needlessly) since in the remote case something should happen their ass would be on the line.

    So as long as they keep Spacey on payroll, they open themselves up to the charge of complicity – better to fire him and be done with him. Actually, the charge of complicity isn’t that far-fetched, I mean, management likely must have known, right? So by apparently over-reacting they may try to mask that they have been woefully under-reacting all along.

    For victims, the knowledge that their attacker lost their job hardly rises to the level of even minimal justice. Nor does it protect other women from falling prey as well. Any sanction short of a prison term for a rapist or a big-time sexual harasser is bound to feel trivial, as though society doesn’t weigh victimhood, as if victims are disposable.

    This is the one weakness of the column, I think. It seems rather symmetrical to me: the power of holding positions of power (movie star, director, casting director, etc.) was what enabled the predation on otherwise relatively-well-connected-but-not-A-list people in the first place. Losing that position, and hence the power, seems “fair” and not only in the biblical sense. Future offenders may think twice about abusing their power knowing that the more they repeat it, the more people may come out and back whoever has the guts to accuse them in public. Perhaps people who like abusing their power will indeed think back wistfully to the “good old days” before relatively-well-connected-but-not-A-list people collectively decided not to take this shit anymore from the ridiculously-well-connected, as Ted’s more recent cartoon points out.

    As I’ve written before, employers have way too much power over workers. While bosses […]

    This seems to be the crux of the matter. But it is bosses – or the equivalent – who abuse their power in the first place, and mostly not over aspiring actors but over cleaning maids and waitresses as Barbara Ehrenreich details based on her own experience. Ironically, Ted has in the past criticized Ehrenreich for her somewhat stilted ethnography among the poor, performed while being able to get back to her real and financially secure self at any moment as if finding an actual member of the working poor who can write about their experience were an impossibility. But here Ehrenreich’s approach to the employers have way too much power over workers problem resonates and this time Ted appears to be the one who may be a bit out of touch. That said, of course there is merit in laying out that the argument cuts in both directions and we probably need to be a bit more weary of a modern equivalent to the papal excommunication order…

  2. Ted’s right on all counts – no surprise there – but I’d like to add some different spin.

    Society as a whole has looked the other way for far too long. This allowed Weinstein and Father Lumpylap to continue their behavior unopposed.

    So, okay, today society as a whole may be over-reacting. There is a terrible price to pay for the falsely accused. But society as a whole will benefit from the purge. Our granddaughters (and grandsons) will grow up in a better world because of it.

  3. Love it. Outstanding. You’re breaking new ground here, which is why I love your work.

    I’d love to see you as a leftist Bannon, (sorry, but, yeah, you know?) advising say, Chris Rock for president.

    (I know nothing of the personal details of Chris Rock, he may be a harassing dickhead too, the point is, we need a kick ass celebrity Jesus, with Rall by his side)

  4. «As I’ve written before, employers have way too much power over workers. While bosses have every right — and the duty — to fire those who abuse other employees at their current workplace, they shouldn’t be allowed to punish anyone for actions, no matter how heinous, that took place outside the workplace or at a previous job. Otherwise we wind up with insane politically-oriented censorship firings like the case of the neo-Nazi dude who never shared his views at his job at a pizzeria, yet got canned after he was photographed in Charlottesville, and the liberal woman whose marketing company employer let her go after she gave the finger to Trump’s motorcade — while biking, not at work.

    Sexual harassers and assaulters should face prison time. So should false accusers. But bosses need to mind their own business — at their own business.»

    Spot on, Ted. The problem – one of the very many problems – in the US is that employers are not required to show just cause for terminating an employee. Take the case of Ms Briskman – as the petition to which unser verehrter Lehrer links above points out, a colleague of hers who called someone «a f***ing Libtard as*hole» was not fired, while she got the pink slip for flipping the bird at Mr Trump’s motorcade while biking (both hands on the handlebars !) Wonder what would have happened if, instead of her offensive gesture, she had had a sign on her bike calling Mr Trump «a f***ing Libtard as*hole» ?…

    Henri

    • Mein verehrter Lehrer, I’ve now signed the petition. Can’t but wonder if in doing so, however, I have confirmed my status as a foreign troll, interfering in the internal affairs of your great (and getting Greater all the time !) Republic….

      Henri

      • @ mhenriday -M

        Don’t worry about it. I remain a citizen of the USA and prior to the 2016 election I was told by at least one discussion board participant that I shouldn’t even be commenting because I live in Mexico!
        🙁

      • «I remain a citizen of the USA and prior to the 2016 election I was told by at least one discussion board participant that I shouldn’t even be commenting because I live in Mexico!» Well, perhaps it’s alright for foreigners to sign petitions, mein verehrter Lehrer, but I usually avoid those relating to political life in a country of which I am neither a resident nor a citizen. I do, however, regularly sign petitions from organisations like LabourStart, no matter in what country the union-busting is taking place – but imagine the furor if I had posted to Facebook (which, by the way, I’d not touch with a ten-foot pole) back in 2016 ! Wouldn’t have dared to «meddle» in those «free and fair» elections held in the States….

        Henri

  5. “[B]osses … shouldn’t be allowed to punish anyone for actions, no matter how heinous, that took place outside the workplace or at a previous job,” by means such as terminating birth control in health care for Hobby Lobby employees thereby instituting feudal privileges for employers acting as lesser lords.

    This is life under a capitalist form of government.

    What the government, acting as agents of corporations cannot do under law, the corporations are empowered to do lawfully by their governmental agents.

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