PhilosophyCenter PhilosophyCenter | Musings
PhilosophyCenter | Musings

Women and the Men Who Hurt Them

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.
| Lord John Dalberg Acton

Women and the Men Who Hurt Them

Recent revelations of widespread abuses of women by men in positions of power and influence seem to have ignited the headlines, leaving some of us men shaking our head, ashamed for our gender, and wondering how deep this dark rabbit hole of depravity and bullying goes. It is, of course, nothing new, and more’s the pity for it. Men in power have always used their position to exploit women, regarding and treating them as property to which they are entitled—an inevitable consequence of a bro culture driven by a Super Bowl mentality that seeks to dominate, acquire, and “win” at any cost. The younger and more inexperienced the woman, the more susceptible she is likely to be to this sort of heartless, narcissistic exploitation, endorsed by the current U.S. president on the infamous Access Hollywood tapes, and apparently long practiced by prominent men on casting couches, in the halls of Congress, and perhaps everywhere that power aggregates and so, corrupts. Donald Trump’s shrugs and grins in the matter notwithstanding, these revelations expose a chilling contempt for the most basic values of civility, a lowering of the bar of acceptable social behavior that can only be regarded as a sickness of the soul.

The frequency with which these abuses are being reported is a distressing commentary on the fallibility of human character (particularly male character) anticipated by Plato, who warned over two millennia ago that society would never be just until the king was a philosopher, someone devoted more to reason and virtue than to power, status, and wealth—what he called the “non-moral goods”—but, Plato added, this was unlikely to happen precisely because no true philosopher would want the job. Indeed, it may be unrealistic to expect men in power to live up to the high standards espoused by the ancient Greek thinkers, and there is no doubt that Athens itself was a hotbed of corruption during the decline of Attic culture, and the lesson in this should not be missed—that when the basic values and virtues of civility are thrown to the dogs, a society’s decline is already well under way. Yet, it may be less important that these things have happened and are happening and sadly will continue to happen than it is how we as a society respond to such abuses once they’re out of the shadows. The courage of many victims who have faced in some cases long held feelings of fear, intimidation, perhaps even shame in coming forward and telling the truth about Trump and Franken (for actual allegations of abuse, please, not a dated photo of a moment of rowdy U.S.O. comedy) and Spacey and Rose and Moore and Conyers and who knows who’s next has given us all an eleventh-hour opportunity to step up and reclaim and reaffirm our national character. Whatever hurts the most vulnerable of us hurts us all, but only if we’re willing to stand by and do nothing about it.

What is to be done? One of the tenets of our system of due process is that a person is considered innocent until proven guilty. But we are not dealing with court proceedings here. Those who have accepted the responsibilities of power and sworn to serve the public trust must be held to the strictest standards. When four or five or more people come forward and accuse a Senator or Representative or political candidate or celebrity of sexual harassment or assault, statutory rape, groping, and the like, there are in this spate of accusations alone sufficient grounds to doubt that individual’s integrity and trustworthiness to warrant immediate removal from office or other position of influence pending the outcome of an ethics investigation, and where the evidence establishes probable cause, criminal prosecution. The soul sickness underlying abuses of power that lead men deficient in character to molest the innocent and defenseless cannot be resolved through a covert financial “settlement,” which amounts to hush money paid by cowards to avoid the consequences of their deplorable behavior. The real remedy consists rather in doing the right thing, the thing needed to uphold the values that such behavior blithely violates. The heroic individuals who have come forward to name names and point fingers at their abusers have done just that. We owe them a debt of gratitude, which we can repay by living up to the same exemplary standards of courage and truthfulness, and holding all abusers—those who admit their actions and those who deny them but have been charged by numerous accusers, fully accountable.

Note that there’s nothing in holding to this higher standard that should be used to justify either the punishing of the innocent or the disempowering of women. Again, we are not in a court of law here, and we have the right, given the seriousness and pervasiveness of sexual harassment and abuse, to err on the side of caution without that constituting an assumption of guilt. It should be clear that women who were sexually harassed or abused, the risks and potential losses notwithstanding, had no less responsibility then to come forward and expose the guilty than they do today—and no less power, unless they themselves chose for whatever reason at the time to remain silent and victimized. Doing the right and courageous thing does not require the permission of a hashtag. We always lose, all of us, when we let fear dictate how we show up. That said, it is fair and reasonable to require that those in positions of power, influence, and the public trust be men and women of unimpeachable integrity with sufficient maturity to recognize and respect the rights of others, which includes handing their sexual impulses responsibly. Where multiple allegations surface that point to their having failed to do so, it makes sense to limit their ability to do such harm (or further harm in the case of the guilty) until the matter can be settled by an impartial investigation, however long that takes. Finally, it needs to be said that age is not a factor in character. There are countless young men who would never dream of sexually bullying someone else or engage in “locker room” talk, a pathetic defense offered by those looking to deny culpability and avoid consequences.