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Harvey Weinstein and the ethics of apology

These last few weeks, I’ve been silently tuned into the fall of film studio executive Harvey Weinstein, yet another powerful man revealed to be a serial sexual assaulter. As of Oct. 27, 60 women have come forward detailing their accounts of Weinstein’s sexual abuse, and consequently, only after fellow producers failed to clear his name, Weinstein was fired from the Weinstein Company. For decades, actors knew about Weinstein. Producers knew. Directors knew. The widespread sexual abuse of women continues to happen, not because it is some societal aberration but rather because it is foundational to the gender order. And we all know this, on some level or another.

Recently, the Internet was flooded with women — though not solely women — saying “me too” in a social media movement meant to illustrate, viscerally, the amount of women who have been sexually abused or harassed. What struck me about this movement was that I could very well say “me too,” too. When the sexual abuse of women’s bodies is a mechanism through which gender power imbalances stay intact, then how can I say “no, I have not been harassed or abused”? Catcalls, uncomfortable touches, the rampant sexualization of underage girls — I’ve experienced all of this and I’m not sure I know a woman who hasn’t. Rape and sexual harassment are demonstrations of power. When we acknowledge this, the question of whether one has been sexually abused or harassed isn’t a yes or no question. Instead, our answers come to lie on a spectrum from yes, a little, to yes, a lot — a spectrum from bad to worse.

To maintain male domination, men’s behaviors on multiple dimensions must reinforce this power imbalance. Attempting to separate “inappropriate” behaviors (rape) from “appropriate” behaviors (winks, flirtations) is difficult when we realize the barrier between these two is permeable and mutually reinforcing. Even the smallest of gestures can be and are used to make women feel uncomfortable, to threaten, to reinforce the understanding that a woman can and likely will be preyed on by men. It is not only overt sexual violence but also covert demonstrations of power, such as touches, manipulation of private spaces, winks, catcalls that perpetuate power imbalances between men and women. Many women who have accused Weinstein detail encounters in which he would take them into his bedroom for meetings, ask for kisses or ask to massage them, making them feel powerless.

Furthermore, these behaviors are upheld through tacit male support. After #MeToo took over the internet, men began using the #IveDoneThat and #IHave hashtags to admit to inappropriate ways they’ve behaved towards women. The examples are difficult to read because they illustrate how sexual abuse exists on many levels. Many statements detail times in which men have catcalled women, groped them, harassed them, allowed their friends to do so, did not listen to women when they voiced their discomfort or knowingly made them uncomfortable, etc. The hope is that the #IveDoneThat hashtag is a way for men to take responsibility for sexually inappropriate behaviors and, subsequently, hold each other accountable. But, despite the fact that this hashtag is important for these reasons, many of these statements start to uncomfortably resemble Weinstein’s own “apology”:

I came of age in the ’60s and ’70s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different. That was the culture then. I have since learned it’s not an excuse, in the office — or out of it. To anyone. I realized some time ago that I needed to be a better person and my interactions with the people I work with have changed. I appreciate the way I’ve behaved with colleagues in the past has caused a lot of pain, and I sincerely apologize for it… My journey now will be to learn about myself and conquer my demons.”

In this statement, Weinstein attempts to code his purposeful, violent actions as an unfortunate aggregation of isolated behaviors. He equates the sexual assault of women to minor infractions of rules of behavior. Weinstein’s statement is a way for him to slither past legal or social punishment into recovery, into “conquering his demons,” into a sham rehab that lasted a week. Similarly, many men who write #IveDoneThat assure, in a 140-character tweet, that they will not do it (catcall, harass, rape) again. But when we realize how deeply men’s behaviors, on multiple levels, contribute to making women feel powerless, how can men simply assure they will not do it again? How can they simply apologize?

The #IveDoneThat hashtag exists in such an important and thorny position: It has the power of holding men accountable and recognizing the ways in which men participate in and support the sexual abuse of women, but it can also fit so comfortably in the legacy of abusers’ apologies, which always attempt to divert the necessary punishment that comes with traumatizing a human being.

We cannot use the #IveDoneThat hashtag to participate in some stagnant group therapy, to simply acknowledge what we all know. We must hold rapists accountable. Men must stop enabling their friends to prey on and harass women. Men must stop being friends with rapists. Men must have conversations about sexual abuse. Men must report. It is not enough to acknowledge after the fact. If there is not legal and social punishment for sexual abuse on all levels, from leers to rape, we are telling women that the sexual abuse of their bodies doesn’t matter, that it’s expected. Men must shame the rapists they know. They must also call out the small behaviors and call themselves out.

Even though the #IveDoneThat hashtag seems to do many of these things, we must recognize how uncomfortably this public apology as a form of discourse exists in the current social context and historically alongside the public apologies of men like Weinstein. Apology has been used to rationalize, to justify, to minimize sexual abuse. Apology has been a way to preemptively excuse oneself from the very real punishment that should accompany sexual abuse. Apology, in Weinstein’s case, has been a way to opt out of admitting the agency with which he decided, repeatedly and over a span of decades, to harass and assault women. Apology has been a way to sidestep punishment and detour into “moral recovery.”

There is enormous power in apologizing, and it comes in shaping others’ understandings of a situation. Before you think about issuing a statement or saying #IveDoneThat, on the Internet or otherwise, ask: How useful is your apology? Where does it fit, relationally, against the apologies of men like Weinstein? Will your apology confront other men? What else can you do? Why does it need to be said? And, perhaps most importantly, will you have benefited from it afterwards?

 

Contact Medina Husakovic at medinah ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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