ME TOO: Who Among Us Doesn't Have a Story to Tell?

She was an exceptional legal secretary, a regal beauty, and an independent woman who repeatedly tried to ignore her boss’s advances.  One day, upon his return from a foreign business trip, he presented her with a string of French pearls and a litany of love. It was the 1930s so the secretary saw no way out but to quit her job. That woman was my mother.

She was a motivated professional who took her work seriously.  The first time it happened she worked for a medical board that certified physicians. At a formal dinner one evening, a doctor rubbed his hand up her leg under the tablecloth. She pushed it away. Later the doctor invited her on a trip to the Caribbean. She rebuffed him.

The next time, she was working in a different city when, standing next to her seated boss as he reviewed a document she’d handed him, he put his hand up her skirt. She slapped it away.

The time after that, she was on assignment in another country. Her work finished, she approached the local director to say goodbye. He grabbed her, kissing her on the lips.  Repulsed, she pulled away. But once again she told no one, because it was a time when women didn’t speak of sexual harassment or sexual assault, there being no words for it She was silent because she didn’t want to lose her job or be accused of “asking for it,” and she knew nothing would be done about it anyway.   That woman was me.

It isn’t necessary to cite other times it happened to me because by now everyone sort of gets the picture.  And I was one of the lucky ones: I was never raped.

Now, thanks to a growing number of brave, bold, truth-telling women, we are finally talking about the rampant sexual assault and harassment taking place in just about every workplace you can name. We are naming names. We are outing a pervasive culture of sexual abuse that exists in this, and most other cultures. We are refusing to be complicit via silence, choosing now to raise our collective voices in order to press charges so that we can put an end to the madness of male power and its concomitant sense of entitlement.

We thought Anita Hill’s dignity and truth-telling all those years ago might have been the beginning we see now, but it didn’t happen then.  Thankfully it’s happening now, because of a growing cadre of women who will no longer submit to second-class status, silence, or male prerogative.

Many of those women now hold public office. But they no longer hold their tongues. By telling their stories in the halls of power, they are starting to bring down men who insult them, trivialize them, accuse them of being liars and sluts, physically assault them, and once made them feel small and afraid.

There are men standing with us now too, taking up the fight against sexual harassment and abuse. Perhaps they heard playwright Eve Ensler when she said, “I am over the passivity of good men. Where the hell are you? You live with us, make love with us, father us, befriend us, get nurtured and mothered and eternally supported by us, so why aren’t you standing with us?” To those men, we say, it’s about time, and if they really kick in, thank you.

Rob Okun is one of them. He is a writer and psychotherapist who edited a collection called Voice Male: The Untold Story of the Profeminist Men’s Movement.  In a recent blog on www.counterpunch.org he wrote, “For decades, men who have never battered or raped would offer excuses for not standing up for women who faced harassment – and worse – offering this lame rationale: ‘I don’t engage in these behaviors, I’m a good guy, these are women’s issues, not mine.’ Those days are over. Sexual assault is not a women’s issue; it’s a community issue, and men, ready or not, we have to break our silence.”

In his piece, Okun credits women with “dragging domestic and sexual violence from society’s shadows” as they created rape crisis centers and shelter for domestic violence survivors. He credits the few men who stood with them initially as allies while coming to grips with their own passivity in the face of violence against women. He calls upon more men to act. He also calls out Donald Trump, who “has yet to pay a price for his sexual assaults.”

The work of Okun and other men working independently and alongside women is encouraging. But like gun violence, the problem of sexual harassment and assault will not simply disappear. It will take concerted group effort, and individual brazen acts. It will require telling our stories. It will take laws and enforced regulations in various workplaces. It will call for zero tolerance.

Can we get there in the age of Weinstein, Spacey and Trump?  As one good man said not long ago, “Yes, we can!” But only, it seems, if we raise our voices, tell our stories, press charges, and vehemently declare Enough!

Revisiting "The Banality of Evil"

In the midst of troubling times that include torture, police brutality, sexual abuse, and other acts of violence I happened to be reading about the German-born Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt, best remembered for her phrase “the banality of evil.” 

Arendt was writing about Adolph Eichmann after having covered his trial in Jerusalem in 1961 when she wrote those words. “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” which first appeared as a five-part series in The New Yorker, was considered a “masterpiece” by many and is still widely studied and debated. It also continues to spawn vivid controversy about the meaning of her words and thoughts, which some consider to be wrong theoretically while others call them outrageously anti-Semitic.

What people thought – not about her but about how to live their lives – is a loaded word in the context of Arendt’s work.  Thinking – being a sentient human being - was central to Arendt’s thesis that Eichmann was not only “monstrous” but “terrifyingly normal.” In an attempt to explain intellectually the horrific times in which she lived she posited that Eichmann acted devoid of critical thought as much as ideology or other sinister factors in his character.  He was, she suggested, not very different from multitudes of others whose behavior may not be as hideous but who are all too willing to act without compunction, whether to succeed or to survive.

Arendt wrote later that she was “struck by a manifest shallowness in [Eichmann] which made it impossible to trace the incontestable evil of his deeds to any deeper level of roots or motives.  The deeds were monstrous, but [Eichmann] … was quite ordinary, commonplace…”  Eichmann was, she had said, “a leaf in the whirlwind of time.”

While Arendt may have been wrong about Eichmann in terms of his capacity for evil, her argument that ordinary people can be brutal seems to stands up.  As Yehuda Kurtzer pointed out in a November Times of Israel blog, most Germans went along with events that led to the Holocaust.  Even Jews assisted the SS to buy time in their own lives. Later, decent men bombed North Vietnam because they were unquestionably following orders from what Arendt called “desk murderers.” 

In Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt, Kathleen B. Jones writes that what troubled Arendt most “was how many others were like [Eichmann] – terrifyingly normal, banal perpetrators of evil. What had happened, Hannah wondered, to make so many people thoughtless?”

After reading Eichmann in Jerusalem Jones wrote, “If I’d been born at another time, in another place, I could have been an Eichmann,” not because of any similarities in their lives or characters, but because of “the uniquely ordinary tale Hannah wove out of the facts of Eichmann’s life…I began to see I could no longer be certain I’d not only know the right thing to do but would do it.”  She continues: “I began to think the Eichmanns among us exist because the world has changed and there are no longer any simple formulae distinguishing right from wrong to turn to when we’re confronted with something unexpected. We have to decide all on our own what we should do and what we might have to risk doing it.  Thinking demands a burdensome kind of vigilant, imaginative observation of the world. Maybe that’s why many people prefer to avoid it.”

In a society in which police can shoot unarmed children and choke a man to death for selling cigarettes and not be indicted maybe we need to think about what Hannah Arendt was trying to tell the world.  When one out of five female college students is sexually assaulted on campus, when military women can’t report sexual abuse for fear of retaliation, and when famous men are alleged to have drugged and raped numerous women whose stories are doubted perhaps we need to think about how easily cruelty can enter our lives.  When politicians with an extraordinary lack of insight, compassion and intelligence can condone torture and legislate against ordinary people and when the ultra-wealthy spend untold amounts of money to buy those politicians, maybe it’s time to think about how quickly so many of us acquiesce and collude. Shouldn’t we be asking ourselves if this is a time to think again about “the banality of evil”?

In 2013, writing about “The Banality of Systemic Evil” on The New York Times Opinionator blog, Peter Ludlow made the observation that Hannah Arendt was making “a statement about what happens when people play their ‘proper’ roles within a system, following prescribed conduct with respect to that system, while remaining blind to the moral consequences of what the system was doing – or at least compartmentalizing and ignoring those consequences.”

It’s an observation that seems eerily prescient, and one that makes me suspect Hannah Arendt got a bad rap when what she was trying to do was simply make people think about some of the most urgent issues of the times in which we live.