Sexual Assault

#MeToo + Trump-centric Partisanship = Smear Job

Why are we illustrating ambiguous social misunderstandings as unwanted boob-grabs?


Take a close look at this Daily Caller tweet, particularly the stock photo used to illustrate the article:

The casual reader can be forgiven for inferring that the editor in question put his mitts on a gal's sensitive bits without her permission. And yet, as Shikha Dalmia has laid out here in her infuriating piece on fired Detroit Free Press Editorial Page Editor Stephen Henderson, the alleged sexual harassment in question—which was only investigated after a loose allegation from a pissed-off supporter not of Donald Trump but of disgraced Democratic congressional lifer John Conyers—did not involve any physical contact whatsoever, according to what we know so far:

The Freep's fishing expedition eventually turned up two interactions that HR decided were inappropriate. Both occurred in social situations outside of the workplace. One involved a "sexually themed" conversation and another an interaction with someone who was his co-equal in another department. We don't know much more besides that. And while obviously some graphic or threatening "sexually themed" conversations with colleagues would indeed be grounds for termination, that really shouldn't be the case here. After all, neither woman, according to Henderson, ever filed a complaint against him or even wanted the company to take any action, a version of events that Freep and its parent company, Gannett, has not disputed….WDET [a local public TV station where Henderson also works] has conducted its own investigation and come up empty, and is therefore not nixing Henderson's show.

Henderson characterized that second interaction thusly: "a co-worker who was a manager in another department reported two rejected advances that she said made her uncomfortable." That's his version, granted, but it sure doesn't sound like a grope.

Weaponizing something as potent as the #MeToo movement is inevitable. (The Conyers ally who first accused Henderson, Rev. W.J. Rideout III, also pointed the finger at local WXYZ-TV anchors Steven Clark and Malcom Maddox, the latter of whom has been placed on administrative leave pending an investigation. Rideout himself was then suspended indefinitely by 910 AM Superstation, where he has a show, for making unsubstantiated allegations.) The motives for weaponizing will be varied—ranging from a pure desire to right wrongs, shield future victims, and create a better workplace culture, to an impure attempt to punish rivals, remove expensive employees, and secure financial gain.

The best way for the rest of us to avoid advancing particularly the latter phenomena is to pay close heed to the quality of evidence, respect due process when it applies, and avoid letting our own priors govern reaction. Alas, with the state of our Trump-centric politics and polarization, resisting that temptation may prove too arduous. Hence grossly inaccurate sexual-assault art in the Daily Caller, and headlines like this, from the American Thinker: "Vicious anti-Trump, anti-conservative Pulitzer-winning columnist and editor fired."

Meanwhile, as former Reason editor Virginia Postrel illustrated Tuesday in a terrific and subtle Bloomberg View column keying off the resignation of Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge (and libertarian legal favorite) Alex Kozinski after serial accusations of sexualized workplace impropriety, the rapid changes in workplace norms, however positive they might be, will inevitably produce victims who intended no harm. Excerpt:

[A] hang-loose norm that tolerates pornography, bawdy talk and sexual propositions bespeaks playfulness and freedom to some individuals. It makes others — not all of them female — feel excluded or threatened. As long as the dissidents are too nice or too cowed to object, the norm can stay in place even if most employees don't like it. What we're seeing in the current cascade is a critical mass of women rebelling against that norm, as well as against more serious offenses.

Make no mistake, however. Whatever new norms emerge will also exclude people, and not all of those cast out will be bullies, predators, or, for that matter, men. All norms draw lines. Norms that police speech and attitudes, as opposed to physical actions, are particularly likely to snare violators whose deviance is unconscious or benign. […]

A culture that marginalizes no one and nothing — a culture without norms — is neither realistic nor desirable. The real question is how to best accommodate the diversity of human personalities and goals while respecting the dignity of individuals.

People who don't pick up well on social cues and/or come from outnumbered minority populations are most likely to look conspicuously out of place during a changing/tightening of courtship-related mores and regulations. It is no accident that a grossly disproportionate number of campus sexual assault cases over the past few years have been brought against black students, many of them foreign-born.

Also running the risk both of being flagged for borderline behavior and stepping over those boundaries in the first place are would-be paramours who are socially and romantically awkward, no matter how professionally successful they otherwise might be. The more we get into the gray areas of people hitting on other people and being rebuffed, the more we are going to veer toward some kind of Nerd Penalty, and the likelier we'll see examples of weaponized injustice popping up among the righteous reckonings.