With the recent #MeToo movement, and the incredible number of pointed harassment allegations that have become public, I think it’s time that we have a conversation about how we respond to the allegations as well as how we respond to apologies. My #MeToo was a screengrab of an apology that I received from a guy who had pushed me into a bathroom stall and pinned me against the wall, forcibly kissing me and grabbing me as I tried to get away. The apology wasn’t great, but frankly the recognition that it had happened and that it was wrong, without my having to make what happened public or ask for an apology, was A LOT more than I’d ever gotten from anyone else. I believed that his apology was sincere, and I was happy to accept it and move on because, as weird as it might sound, I really like and admire the guy. Unfortunately, I’ve since heard from other women that I wasn’t the only woman he treated that way. It shouldn’t surprise me, but it hurts nonetheless to know that this person – a person who has spent years doing remarkable work for the benefit of terribly underserved people – might still be treating other women the way that he treated me.
Similarly, when the news came out about the accusation against Al Franken, I was crushed. I saved up my money as a kid to buy his books, and it really hurt to think that if I met this person I so admired, he might just see me as an object. His first apology was pretty garbage, but his second apology was much better. He said, in part: “Over the last few months, all of us—including and especially men who respect women—have been forced to take a good, hard look at our own actions and think (perhaps, shamefully, for the first time) about how those actions have affected women. For instance, that picture. I don’t know what was in my head when I took that picture, and it doesn’t matter. There’s no excuse. I look at it now and I feel disgusted with myself. It isn’t funny. It’s completely inappropriate. It’s obvious how Leeann would feel violated by that picture. And, what’s more, I can see how millions of other women would feel violated by it—women who have had similar experiences in their own lives, women who fear having those experiences, women who look up to me, women who have counted on me.”
Leeann Tweeden accepted Franken’s apology. She says that she is not calling on Franken to stand down, and that she is not asking for an ethics investigation, but that she told her story so that other women would feel empowered to tell their own stories. Nonetheless, there are still people calling on Franken to step down. I relate to Tweeden in the sense that the reason I don’t want to put a name to my #MeToo is because I worry that it might ultimately interfere with the necessary work that he’s doing. But I also understand the impulse of people who feel that apologizing is too easy and that we must demand more.
The obvious aphorism in this situation is that it’s easier to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission. The phrase takes on an added significance in the context of sexual harassment and assault, where “permission” is at the centre of the issue. And so we end up in this weird situation where we want to ensure that begging for forgiveness will be harder than asking for permission, and yet we don’t want to make apologizing so hard that people opt to deny til they die a la Roy Moore.
I would offer the following suggestion: I think we should leave it to each “victim” (for lack of a better word) to accept apologies and/ or demand further consequences in order to accomplish the following goals:
- Make the abuser vulnerable to the will of their victim. Even though we can’t recreate the horror that is sexual harassment and assault, and I hope we wouldn’t want to replicate it, I think it’s powerful for an abuser to experience what it is like to be at the mercy of another person, not knowing how they will choose to exercise their power.
- Empower the victim. I think it’s valuable for a victim to feel that their assessment of the situation is going to be accepted and valued by society. While I strongly believe that in cases of systemic abuse, such as in domestic violence situations, there is a need for an objective third party to intervene in order to hold the abuser to account, I believe that in most cases it is valuable to empower a victim to make the authoritative recommendation about the appropriate response.
- Permit the victim to make their own evaluation of the sincerity, appropriateness, and proportionality of an apology. I don’t think people who were not party to the particular event are in a better position to make such evaluations.
- Incentivize people to take the initiative and make unsolicited private apologies. I think a lot of people – maybe even most people – want an apology more than they want to draw blood.
I am just one voice, and I am sure that my position would (and hopefully will) become more nuanced as we as a society continue to have this conversation. But I think that the above suggestion provides both an incentive to apologize and a strong disincentive for a person to do whatever they want knowing that they can get away with a flippant apology later.
As Al Franken suggests in his apology, we are in a time of reckoning. And it’s going to be ugly and difficult for everyone. It’s going to be a learning process for everyone. But it’s high time we start stumbling through these conversations.
Posted in: Progress