Over the last month, numerous high-profile men were felled by charges of sexual harassment and sexual assault. In each case, these men enjoyed considerable wealth, power and influence. In each case, these men were aggressive behind-the-scenes operators; alpha males who benefited in a 'take no prisoners', 'make your own rules', 'cult of personality' world. They also benefited from a culture that is quick to dismiss victims of impropriety and abuse in favor of powerful men (see Clarence Thomas and William Jefferson Clinton). Laudable characteristics like assertiveness, tenacity, and a willingness to go where others dare not tread, those cultivated and valorized in male society, were prerequisite for each man's rise. In their extremes, these same characteristics, void of their ethical considerations, are now the root of each man's fall. There are no tears to be shed here. Each of these men--senator, radio personality, congressman, media mogul, journalist, political broker, Oscar winner, comedian--deserve some measure of due process. Ironic, then, that these men were so quick to deny women their portion of respect and fair play, their right of access, their due process. How obtrusive the elephant in the White House press room?
Given my position, I generally avoid contentious political topics in my regular community postings. My job as an educator is to focus on learning, not partisan squabbles and culture wars. My colleagues and I work to create inclusive spaces wherein diverse views and beliefs are shared and debated. We promote the essential tenets of humanism: principled inquiry and action, empathy, open-mindedness, and self-reflection. The prevalence of sexual harassment and sexual abuse in our wider culture, for all of our collective history, especially in so far as our daughters, sisters, wives, mothers, and female colleagues are concerned, is a topic of crucial and lasting importance. Every child, every adult, deserves respect, deserves to feel physically and emotionally safe in their person. Period. This must not be a political statement; it is a moral one. As educators, we play a significant role in raising generations, so it is incumbent upon us to be part of the solution.
Frankly, we men are long overdue for a reckoning. I applaud the courageous women who come forward to challenge deeply ingrained male biases and behaviors. It's past time we speak honestly and openly about the pernicious state of gender inequality and the all too commonplace denigration of women. That we measure our progress towards gender equality by lauding the handful of women who happen to succeed in spite of 'old boy' antics, in spite of a ceiling that can appear bullet proof, only proves the point. So too Harvard Business Review's annual top CEOs edition, a veritable 'Who's Who' of men. So too the current number of serving congresswomen, female governors, and female heads of state, totally unrepresentative of broader demographics. Education, a profession whose rank and file is characteristically female, is nonetheless dominated by male leadership, which makes no sense by any measure. Women are still limited in combat roles, regardless their capacity or expertise, and this unsubstantiated structural limitation impacts their ability to advance to the highest ranks. Women are still regularly paid less than men to do similar jobs, and for no credible reason. This systemic inequality, too long a reality that every woman must endure, concedes fertile ground to harassment, abuse, isolation and shame. Furthermore, any such discussion of inequality is inevitably equated to some species of Feminism rather than a general review of broad social and legal principals of fair treatment.
We are all, in our sinews, sexual beings, driven by a powerful libido and genetic purpose. We are also distinct in nature--moral animals in a moral universe. We know better, and must therefore act better. There are lines that cannot be crossed. The girls and women in our lives are not objects to covet or ogle, conquests to collect, or something to be put in place. Women are equally talented fellow travelers, more than capable, essential to our species, and the wellspring of much of the emotional and spiritual strength in we men’s lives.
My intent here is not to bash men. Men are essential to our human story, and are worthy of recognition and emulation. Most men don't behave inappropriately towards women, and are likewise sickened that some among us would treat women with such disregard. Furthermore, I worry that the better parts of manhood are receding even as the worst parts come to the fore; that men of strong character are muted in all the noise of this morally ambiguous, superficial and narcissistic age.
But I've spent plenty of time in hypermasculine cultures, in athletics and the military, those that promote a cartoonish insistence on behaviors degrading to men and women. While most men bear no personal blame, nor directly engage with those who do, we nonetheless benefit from a system stacked in our favor, and that heretofore excused away and covered up sexual harassment and assault. It's time for a change. There needs to be proactive dialogue, among men, and with the boys they raise, and between men and women. This dialogue must do more than establish boundaries; it must challenge the mindsets and prevailing attitudes that give rise to cultures of intimidation, harassment, and sexual violence, and privilege men over women, contra bonos mores.