People seem to be repeatedly shocked at the revelation that men who have been been accused, some with indisputable evidence, of various levels of sexual misconduct, from harassing to rape, are the same men who have claimed they support women and women’s rights. The hypocrisy, the masses accuse.
But that isn’t exactly what I’m seeing. I am reminded of my experience with bullies.
For about five years, I taught at a middle school in Los Angeles. And as in every middle school across America, there were kids who were bullies and kids who were bullied. I learned a couple of interesting things about bullies through my years there.
- Some bullies were protected. Even bullies of teachers. Inevitably, those bullies had influential families with a lot of money and threats of lawyers.
- Some of the worst bullies were teachers. I had a co-worker when I was a tenured college professor who previously had worked at a middle school. His theory was that many of those who chose to teach in a middle school were themselves bullied in middle school, and this is their attempt to bring closure to that. After my own experiences, that seems reasonable. I was personally bullied by a couple of teachers, and I know others who were bullied at levels far worse than I was. The administration, who consider themselves the toughest around on bullies, refused to accept the possibility that teachers were also bullying. And yes, I did report what happened to me – not everyone did. But, I was not really believed. I think I wasn’t taken seriously because I was not perceived as a victim in general. It was clear that anyone who was considered weak or a victim was always automatically believed.
- Standard anti-bully practice included an assembly each year to draw attention to this issue. Of course, I support any effort to reduce the amount of bullying at school. But these did little, if anything, to stop the bullying.
Let me expand a bit on those assemblies.
What I saw as the failure of these assemblies is that the worst, most obvious examples of bullying were trotted out. There was always talk of the importance of not making fun of the disabled, for example. I remember one story of a child in a wheelchair being bullied, I guess, for being in a wheelchair. Do I not doubt this happened? I’m sure it did. But only the most despicable kids at school would do that. Most bullying is not so easy to see. Kids talked about this after the assembly, and some took it upon themselves to keep the message moving forward. They made posters, they talked to kids in study hall. Teachers assigned projects in classes.
And yes, all of that is good. Please don’t misunderstand me. My point is that the majority of bullies at that school were not making fun of the disabled. But what they were doing was just as terrible. They were making life hell for the student sitting next to them in English class. And that student had all sorts of reasons to justify how he acted, and none of them were because he decided to be a bully. And if a bully makes fun of a child in a wheelchair, well, that was not him.
The other problem was a PR issue. Typically, the anti-bullying assemblies were conducted by organizations who had been hired by the school. It wasn’t the teachers and staff talking to their own students. That might be fine too. They have certainly done all kinds of research and focus groups to determine how best to present this information to middle school kids. But at the end of the assembly, our principal simply couldn’t help himself. He did his thanks, and asked the students to applaud to show their appreciation. And then he said, “This was really great information. We of course don’t have bullying here at our school, so I am grateful for that, but let’s thank them for coming out.”
Seriously? So anyone who may have had a fleeting question about how he was treating a classmate and whether or not it was bullying (which I doubt anyway) was now just told that it is not by the principal. The student who is getting bullied and may have considered reporting it was just told that he is not being bullied. It doesn’t happen there.
I also understand a little about bullies because my ex-husband is a bully. I never called him that, probably because to do so would have labelled me as his victim, and I never felt like I was his victim. I just thought he was an asshole. But he was a bully. And I have had many other people who have come in contact with him call him as much. But he would never identify himself as a bully.
After our divorce, he made a habit of calling me names, constantly: buffoon, idiot, imbecile, ignorant, evil, just to name a few. When I would ask him to stop calling me names, his response was always that he did not call me a name and that he would never call me names. He doesn’t do that. He would follow that statement with, “It isn’t calling names when it is the truth.” So he wasn’t a bully. He was an advocate for truth. Other times, he would claim that he was joking. “God, can’t you take a joke?” More on that later.
When my ex punched a man in line at 7-11, he didn’t punch the man because he was a bully. He punched him to teach him a lesson to save the rest of the world from this man’s rudeness. Whenever he felt slighted, which was most of the time since he believed the world was out to get him, he lashed out to teach someone a lesson. He threatened, he ridiculed, he got physical. But his target always deserved it. People walk on eggshells around him, measuring every word and reducing contact as much as possible.
To tell him that he was (is) abusive and a bully would fall on deaf ears. He considered himself noble. So any generic message sent out to bullies would never resonate with him. And my guess is that this would be true with most people that you and I would consider bullies.
This brings me to the latest onslaught of accusations of sexual harassment to sexual assault to out and out rape. While there have been a few who have issued apologies, even though people argue that some of these aren’t really apologies, those apologies are revealing.
Louis CK writes, “At the time, I said to myself that what I did was O.K. because I never showed a woman my dick without asking first.” There it is. In his mind, he got consent. So any condemnation of sexual abusers would not resonate with him. He was above that. He would never sexually harass a woman.
Al Franken says this in the middle of his first, easily criticized, public apology: ““I respect women. I don’t respect men who don’t.” This is a man who just as recently as last week posted on Facebook about the bravery of the women who have come forward with their stories about Harvey Weinstein. And he thanked them. This is also the same Al Franken who last month was working on a sexual assault bill.
He doesn’t see himself as disrespecting women. In his actual apology he states that he doesn’t respect men who do not respect women, yet he is apologizing for not respecting women. Does anyone else see the disconnect?
When faced with the photo of him grabbing at Leean Tweed’s breasts, Franken claims it was a joke. Sounds familiar. Come on? Can’t anyone take a joke?
Others have said, “That isn’t who I am,” when admitting the truth of recent accusations. Again, the disconnect. If you sexually harassed or assaulted a woman, then that is exactly who you are. Who else could you be? How else can we judge who someone is but by their actions? Would you encourage your daughter to date a man who has abused women because he assured you that is not who he is?
This is why even as recently as a month ago, Franken can stand against the enemy because he has not identified himself as part of that group.
What this means is that no number of sexual harassment workshops or courses online will reach those who need to be reached. The people who do not behave this way can’t imagine that anyone does behave this way. And those who need to be spoken to do not see themselves as the perpetrators presented in these classes.
Part of the problem, and I myself have attended many workshops and clicked through online courses on sexual harassment as required by my work, is the clumsy examples of misbehavior that are provided, especially in the animated online videos. It is difficult for me to take them seriously and to see myself as the woman in any of the scenarios. I can only imagine most men feel the same way. When the cartoon man puts his hands on the cartoon woman, the entire exchange is so awkward and unrealistic. So it is easy to say, “Well, I would never do that.”
I do not have an answer to any of this (although I do have a thought, which will have to wait for another day). I just want to point out that we do have a problem. Simply scolding and demanding an end to bad behavior is not enough. Men, and bullies, need to first see themselves for who they are in order to change. Perhaps the best way to do that is to single out these men with the specifics of what they have done. It has yet to be seen if even that will change what seems to be a sense of entitlement that can justify nearly any behavior.