What the right considers ‘inherently meaningless’

When the public learned last week of the sexual-harassment allegations levied against Herman Cain, the Republican responses varied a bit. Some blamed the media, some blamed racism, and some blamed both.

But there was a related concern raised by conservatives about the nature of the allegations themselves. On Fox News, for example, Greg Gutfeld called the claims against Cain “inherently meaningless.”

It struck me as an interesting choice of words. If Republicans wanted to characterize the allegations as baseless and without merit, fine. But to call them “inherently meaningless” is to suggest that accusing an employer of sexual harassment is ultimately unimportant — true or not, the thinking goes, the allegations have no value because they can’t have value.

Gutfeld was hardly the only one to offer such a tack. Dahlia Lithwick had a terrific report explaining that many conservatives are simply “denying the very existence of sexual harassment.” Lithwick highlighted some jaw-dropping examples, including National Review‘s John Derbyshire, who went so far as to ask, “Is there anyone who thinks sexual harassment is a real thing?”

Lithwick went on to explain that this is the right’s “new trick” — to say that this issue “is a mass delusion of hyper-sensitive ladies.”

This isn’t just an effort to discredit Cain’s accusers. It’s an effort to dissuade women with genuine complaints from coming forward to report them. Recall that one of Cain’s accusers has declined to come forward precisely because she is afraid to be the next Anita Hill. The cost of reporting harassment is not just “the filing fee and a printer.” It’s the fear of being treated precisely the way these still-nameless women have been treated: like hysterics and liars out of the Chaucer era. […]

Nobody is suggesting these claims [against Cain] are necessarily true. But to claim that they must be false because all women lie and all harassers are just joking is a terrifying proposition. Even more than the outright antagonism of so many conservative pundits, what’s worrying to me is the indifference of so many Republican voters: New poll results show that 70 percent of Republicans say the sexual harassment scandal makes no difference in their vote. It’s no longer just a Republican war on women. It’s a war on the idea that any woman might ever tell the truth.