Ending the culture of harassment

Four years ago at the Oscars the comedian Seth MacFarlane joked that nominees for the best Supporting Actress category would “no longer have to pretend to be attracted to Harvey Weinstein.” As the quip suggests, and detailed accounts now appearing in the US media confirm, Weinstein’s abusive behaviour was an open secret. His decades-long harassment of actresses was enabled by studio executives and corporate boards that looked the other way, by peers who dismissed his aggressive behaviour as harmless, by employees who helped lure women into his offices and hotel rooms, and by journalists who not only ignored his assaults but went to some length to discredit his critics. Not least among his many enablers were the lawyers who helped Weinstein to reach at least eight settlements with women who had lodged complaints against him.

In part, the Weinstein scandal appears to have surfaced because of the raft of similar allegations against men like Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly and Donald Trump. The weight of evidence gathered to support these claims – after decades of denial and cover-ups – appears to have shifted the public mood decisively towards accountability. What remains striking about the Weinstein case, however, is that it took place at the heart of an industry that never misses an opportunity to congratulate itself for the courage to confront difficult subjects. Weinstein worked with A-list actors throughout his storied career and it is inconceivable that they were unaware of his proclivities, yet only a handful risked endangering their careers by confronting him directly.

Once the fame of his victims is set aside, Weinstein’s abuses become all-too-familiar examples of workplace harassment. Class action lawsuits over similar gender-based harassment and discrimination in the US military, the Canadian RCMP, and other prestigious organizations have shown that the general tolerance of misogynistic behaviour is far more common than most of us would like to admit, even in industries that supposedly place free speech at the heart of what they do. In a recent Op-Ed, Lena Dunham, creator of the HBO show Girls, notes that “Abuse, threats and coercion have been the norm for so many women trying to do business or make art. Mr. Weinstein may be the most powerful man in Hollywood to be revealed as a predator, but he’s certainly not the only one who has been allowed to run wild.”

Within the Caribbean it is depressingly easy to think of the mistreatment and abuse of women that has been tolerated with equal silence. Fortunately the culture that underwrites this behaviour has been changing. Minister Ramsaran’s vulgarity towards Ms Nageer two years ago produced an immediate backlash, including within the diplomatic corps, and shortly afterwards he was “relieved of his Ministerial duties.” Last year, Port of Spain Mayor Raymond Tim Kee faced a similar reckoning after the death of a Japanese tourist led him to comment on the “vulgarity and lewdness” of female Carnival revellers and to suggest that “the woman has a responsibility to ensure that they [sic] are not abused … in that way.” In both cases these men seemed surprised to learn that public opinion was not on their side, that it was no longer acceptable to think or speak about women in this way. Happily, it seems highly unlikely that their successors will make the same mistake.

The statement that Mr Weinstein released after the New York Times exposed his harassment is worth reading in its entirety. Filled with evasive language and disingenuous understatement it opens with an appeal to the way things were (“I came of age in the 60’s and 70’s when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different”) and concedes only that his actions have “caused a lot of pain.” It omits all mention of the intimidation used to silence would-be accusers, the long trail of settlements, and the sheer nastiness of the alleged offences. It closes with a craven appeal to fellow liberals and asks for “a second chance in the community.” Fortunately, now that the truth about men like Weinstein is no longer hidden in the shadows, the rest of us can stop pretending that we trust them, like them, or believe that they should be allowed to get away with their appalling behaviour simply because they are powerful.

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