How the Mighty are Falling (But Let's Beware of a Witch Hunt)
The acts of sexual aggression by (for the most part) prominent and powerful men that have come to light over the past few months have generated widespread shock and anger on the part of the public.
The shock is not so much that abuse has gone unreported for many decades; frankly, that is no surprise, as women the world over can attest. Rather, the shock is coming to grips with the troubling realization that among the list of perpetrators are some of the most admired and respected men in this country. There’s a tendency to associate thuggish behavior with ill breeding and a lack of education. What has come to light is an indication of what it means when power corrupts.
The anger is a gut reaction to the awareness that this predatory behavior has been so widespread. #MeToo has erupted in response, allowing millions of women (and some men also) to share their status as victims, without having to divulge the acts of barbarism or describe the shame and pain they have kept bottled up, in some cases for years. I count myself among those many who, as a young adult, was victimized by a powerful older man in the business world, and I hid the fact even from my own family for more than forty years.
This newly galvanized energy will, in itself, do much to end the reign of sexual terror by the unscrupulous, primarily by rebalancing the power relationship between the bully and the victim. Silence is no longer forced upon the abused, and force is no longer the right of the mighty.
Even as this important social tide has turned, let us be mindful that not all accusers are victims, and not all the accused are guilty. There is a long history in this country of mob frenzy treating the accused as guilty with little or no evidence, purely because the story fits the hysteria of the moment.
From the Salem witch trials of the late 17th century, to the McCarthy hearings in the 1950s, to the case of the Amiraults, who ran a day care center in Massachusetts and were swept up in the sex abuse hysteria that rocked the late 1980s (only to be freed from jail after eight years of wrongful confinement when the case fell apart), to the 1987 case of Tawana Brawley, who fabricated a tale of rape by four police officers, whose lives were upended until the case disintegrated on account of its lack of evidence. The widely reported accusations against Cardinal Joseph Bernardin were ultimately dropped by the accuser, who admitted he should never have made them. Similarly, the false allegations of rape against three members of Duke University’s lacrosse team in 2006 brought about the suspension of innocent students and the firing of the coach. And as recently as 2014, Rolling Stone magazine published an entirely spurious article about an unverified rape scene at a fraternity house on the campus of the University of Virginia. Such a litany is worth keeping in mind when each day seems to bring a new array of salacious headlines.
While allegations by numerous individuals against one person can confer logical credence on the plaintiffs, lone wolf accusations cannot be allowed the same degree of respect. Too many bounty seekers, too many disgruntled employees or individuals with venal agendas abetted by eager lawyers can inflict their own form of bullying and abuse. Inaccurate and false headlines can wreak irreparable havoc with the reputations of the innocent, and it is the obligation of each of us – as it is of the press, to be cautious in casting judgment based on hearsay.
Let’s hope that the era of sexual terror foisted upon so many for so long is on its way out. Let’s make sure, too, that the purge of the perpetrators doesn’t also destroy innocent lives.