Each hour seems to bring new and revolting revelations about Harvey Weinstein’s decades of alleged rape and sexual predation. In the wake of the news has come a lot of soul searching: how did we let this happen? Why didn’t people expose him? Is it a Hollywood problem, or pervasive in society? How many more Harveys are there?
The answers aren’t the ones we want to hear. The reality is that institutional sexism and sexual abuse are pervasive across nearly all industries. But they are especially severe in highly competitive fields where a small number of people, mostly men, have enormous wealth and power. Harvey Weinsteins are everywhere, not just in Hollywood but on Wall Street and small towns and throughout society. Women (and some men) who face this sort of abuse are rarely listened to or believed, and the career consequences they face for speaking out are enormous.
Stopping these predators requires that our culture do everything it can to address fundamental sexism at all levels. Men–especially those who are not subordinate to the predators–need to do far more to stand up and hold them accountable.
The most common defense that men make in these cases is that they didn’t know about the behavior. Harvey’s brother Bob Weinstein says that he knew his brother was physically abusive and a serial philanderer, but didn’t know about his predatory behavior. Many others have acknowledged that Weinstein was a cruel bully, but say they weren’t aware of the level of his depravity. The same goes for many of Donald Trump’s acquaintances, who often acknowledged his abusive personality but claimed not to be aware of his much more serious assaults. Trump, of course, has not suffered the same repercussions from his base as Weinstein has from Hollywood and the left, which says a great deal about America’s current political divide.
Saying “I knew he was a bully, but I didn’t know he was a sexual predator” is no excuse. Bullies are bad enough in their own right, and many bullies are also sexual predators. Rape is principally a crime of power, and those who take delight in brutally exercising power over others tend not to limit their behavior to the family and the workplace. The social science is clear that bullying behavior and sexual abuse are intrinsically connected.
American culture is extremely forgiving to bullies. Our libertarian ethic celebrates those who rise to wealth, fame and power by stepping on the backs of others. We are the nation that elevated Bob Knight in sports and Donald Trump to the presidency. Even when we try to address bullying in schools, we do it with hamfisted “zero tolerance” policies that more often than not punish the victims of the bullies when they finally dare to fight back.
In our business environments, American human resources departments find it’s always easier just to go along and get along. We promote bullies or move them out of their positions. Our at-will firing laws allow abusers to get rid of employees who resist by dreaming up excuses that don’t technically violate any labor laws.
The social and business science has already proven that bullies do far more damage to organizations than whatever energy they provide. But still our culture allows them to thrive and even works hard to help promote them.
Men like Weinstein and Trump should have been cut down to size decades ago. Instead, it was just easier to ignore them, laugh, and schmooze at parties with them. Thousands of men in their orbits stood by and did nothing, even though they knew how socially and financially predatory they were.
Americans often have a reputation for brashness and rudeness. But in the end, we’re not too rude. We’re simply too nice to rude people. We yell at customer service reps and politicians, and savage one another for our politics on social media. But by and large, we don’t stand up to the petty tyrants in our lives. We’ll fight with anonymous people on twitter and savage celebrities, but stand idly by when a boss abuses an underling in our presence, or when an entitled rich man inveighs against a barista or an airline stewardess. Our supposed American courage and bravado fails us on these occasions.
The Weinsteins & Trumps of the world can be stopped. It’s easier to stop them when they’re lower on the totem pole. But it takes all of us. Those of us who know a bully in our company or organization and have the power to stand up to them, should do it. It will mean the world to many. It may even save another person from suffering a sexual assault. Abusers in the workplace are all too often abusers in the bedroom as well, where there are fewer witnesses to stop them.
The only thing we have to lose is our acquiescence to rich, evil, powerful men.