Opinion

Opinion | Wendy Kaminer

Beware vigilante feminism

Journalist Mark Halperin is apologizing after five women claimed he sexually harassed them while he was a top ABC News executive.
Evan Agostini/Associated Press/File 2012
Journalist Mark Halperin is apologizing after five women claimed he sexually harassed them while he was a top ABC News executive.

Add journalist Mark Halperin to the list of men named and shamed by accusations of sexual harassment, dating back 10 to 20 years. So far, six women have alleged that he groped or propositioned them when he was political director of ABC News. Halperin, who issued a general denial coupled with a general apology, has been suspended by his current employers at NBC.

Leon Wieseltier, charged with harassing numerous women during his tenure as literary editor of The New Republic, is already yesterday’s news. He apologized profusely for unnamed offenses against former female staffers but still lost funding for the now canceled journal he was about to launch. Its editors and contributors lost their gigs, and we lost the pleasure of reading their work. Wieseltier was allegedly a rather gross serial harasser, but I’m not sure our punishments fit his crimes. And I worry about the rush to accuse in the wake of the Weinstein scandal.

There’s power in a collective shout of “me, too.” But, like virtually all power, it’s susceptible to abuse.

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How do people defend themselves against accusations dating back years or even decades? How do the rest of us respond to the demand that we believe the women in harassment cases? We ought to question its relevance. Whether or not we automatically believe a woman’s account doesn’t matter, unless perhaps we’re her friends or therapists.

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If our goal is justice, not therapy, then what matters is our open-mindedness and support for a relatively unbiased process or venue in which the claims of both accuser and accused can be heard and each case or controversy decided on its own merits. Should everyone accused of harassment in the past be fired as well as shamed? Should they be subject to civil lawsuits? Should alleged gropers be criminally prosecuted? It depends on the particular facts of each particular case.

How do we balance the mandate to “believe the women” with fairness for the men accused? We can’t. Categorically believing accusers turns a mere accusation of wrongdoing into proof that it occurred. Women who cheer this virtually irrebuttable presumption of guilt, considering due process for alleged harassers a component of rape culture, are cheering a thoughtless, treacherous form of vigilante feminism.

Its emergence was perhaps inevitable, considering the history of automatically disbelieving women and the mob rule of social media. Perceptions of systematic injustice often fuel demands for the rough justice promised by vigilantism, and the flood of accusations unleashed by the Weinstein scandal could help change a sexist culture in Hollywood and the corporate world.

But it’s also generating new versions of loyalty oaths — the mea culpas issued by celebrity bystanders — and entrenching expansive definitions of harassment and assault that diminish both women and men.

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Consider the accusation leveled against former president George H.W. Bush, an ailing 93 year old. Four years ago, with his “exasperated” wife standing next to him in a TV studio, the wheelchair-bound Bush reportedly touched the behind of 30-year-old actress Heather Lind and cracked a mildly risqué joke. In a now deleted Instagram post, she condemned this as a sexual assault. Bush issued the obligatory apology but was quickly accused of a similar offense by a second actress. Offering a more elaborate “sincere apology,” his spokesman explained that the former president has been in a wheelchair for the past five years. “To try to put people at ease, (he) routinely tells the same joke — and on occasion, he has patted women’s rears in what he intended to be a good-natured manner.” Some considered this an “innocent” pat, others found it “inappropriate.” (I think it was both.)

Heather Lind was deeply offended, apparently requiring the “help” and “support” of castmates and producers. But now she feels empowered. Issuing her #MeToo cri de coeur, she sees herself as “a symbol of my democracy,” standing up to a president. Belatedly complaining about the fleeting touch and unwelcome joke of a sick old man in a wheelchair, I see her looking smaller than he does.

Consider too the out-of-workplace harassment charge against NESN anchor Marc James. He was, it seems, arrogantly nasty to a young woman who turned him down when he asked for a date. She didn’t work for him or his network. They had no professional relationship; he had no power over her. He wasn’t alleged to have assaulted her (even technically), to have stalked her, threatened her, or committed any other arguably illegal act. But she posted his rude and stupid texts to her anyway, in the belief that she was a victim of harassment. He apologized, and the network suspended him for one week. He looked like a jerk, and she looked like a right-wing caricature of a feminist.

I’m not denying the harm of workplace or work-related harassment. Like many women, I’ve experienced it, to my professional detriment. But I’ve also been helped by male colleagues (and hurt by some women), and I won’t be telling tales of wrongs done by harassers years ago. They’re not provable or actionable, and they don’t matter anymore. I am urging women to accept the questioning of their harassment claims and to differentiate between harassment affecting their careers and the inevitable, ineffectual, inappropriate discourtesies of human interactions. People have a right to be rude.

Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer and author.