If We Won’t Punish Harmful Men, Can We at Least Not Reward Them?
In the headlines these days, it’s not unusual to read about public figures who have been exposed in some social or sexual wrongdoing. Racism, sexism, and other marginalizing behaviors are far more likely to be reported on and discussed than they were twenty years ago. Whether it’s Louis CK, Ryan Adams, or Liam Neeson, men in particular are facing criticism over inappropriate behavior. This is good. We need to have these discussions.
Unfortunately, these discussions follow a predictable and flawed pattern. First, the public and commentators respond with skepticism. They cry that we must offer the man the benefit of doubt. Next, when it is clear something is wrong, they thirst for details, asking “Was it really that bad?” But the step that seems to generate the most press and discussion is, “Does he really deserve such harsh punishment? Should this ruin his life?” We focus on how the fallout, from his actions, will harm the man involved.
The question of how to appropriately and effectively respond to abuse and other irresponsible behavior is an important one. We could stand to apply such thinking to crimes such as drug possession and sex work. But when it comes to well-known men who have done harm to women and other marginalized groups, the conversation is frequently derailed by the fact that we treat success, advancement, and power as a man’s right, not as a privilege reserved for the best of us. When discussing how to respond to these situations, we must delineate between true punishment and the mere loss of privileges.
Brett Kavanaugh: Poster Boy for Privilege
The most well-known recent example of this dynamic is Brett Kavanaugh. After the president nominated him for the Supreme Court, multiple women, including Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, accused Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct. There were multiple accounts of Kavanaugh acting inappropriately and drinking excessively. Dr. Blasey Ford testified before congress the details of her assault. In retaliation, her personal information has been distributed and she has received death threats.
There will always be people willing to believe this is an orchestrated smear campaign, but I think most of us know Kavanaugh was (and for all we know, still is) a danger to women. We don’t need to know beyond a reasonable doubt that he broke the law, though. Because he was never on trial. His freedom was never really at stake.
What was the great price so many of us asked that Brett Kavanaugh pay?
We asked that, given the multiple credible allegations against him, he not receive the highest legal honor in our country. We asked that he not be given the a lifelong license to make vitally important decisions for millions of people. The “punishment” at the center of all the hand-wringing was the prospect of Kavanaugh not getting the biggest promotion of all time.
But it was as if the Supreme Court seat was already his, as if it were unreasonable to think this man shouldn’t get exactly what he wanted. Now, barring some major intervention, Brett Kavanaugh will affect the very course of our country.
Don’t Worry About Kevin Hart
For a slightly less historically significant example of the warped discussions we have around misbehaving men, we can look to comedian Kevin Hart. In December of 2018, it was announced that Hart would host the Oscars. When a string of his homophobic tweets and stand-up jokes sparked outrage, Hart initially refused to apologize. Then he realized this wasn’t going to go away so easily.
He ultimately got on the apology train (with repeated self-serving references to how sensitive people are nowadays) and announced he was stepping down from the hosting job. Ellen Degeneres famously asked him to reconsider, riling up a controversy that seemed to be fading out. The talk show host tweeted “I believe in forgiveness. I believe in second chances. And I believe in @KevinHart4Real.”
Does he really deserve such harsh punishment? Should this ruin his life?
I also believe in forgiveness. I believe people learn and grow and become better versions of themselves. But that doesn’t mean they should face no consequences for their actions.
Hart did not host the Oscars. While this is one case where we didn’t hand a special privilege to a man who’s done wrong, it’s tainted by the knowledge that America is far more willing to punish people of color. We’ll never know how this might have played out if Hart was white.
But don’t worry about Kevin Hart. He’s fine. Netflix has recently been pimping his latest comedy special. He’s producing a series for FX. His Irresponsible Tour is sold out through November. He did not lose his job. He lost a job. A special project, of which there will be many more. I hope Hart learned from the experience. And I hope he can be an example of the fact that, when a man has done wrong, he can face some consequences without it ruining his life.
A Case Closer to Home
This tiresome trend of agonizing over lost privileges is surely playing out in smaller communities and subcultures all over America. For example, I perform improvisational comedy (if you’re not familiar with improv, it just means we make things up on the spot à la Whose Line Is It Anyway?). Where I live, the scene is mostly recreational. People do it to make friends and be creative. Most theaters, however, have an ensemble — essentially the venue’s regular, semi-official cast. While not paid, these performers receive prime stage slots and free tickets for friends and family.
The ensemble is a position of privilege, by both definitions of the word. On the one hand, it gives certain improvisers an elevated position in the community. Someone in the ensemble generally has more power and social capital than someone on independent teams, which are not guaranteed specific showtimes. Regarding the other definition of “privilege,” being an ensemble member is something special — something that you don’t have a right to simply by choosing to do improv.
When a man has done wrong, he can face some consequences without it ruining his life.
To make a long story short, multiple people had confrontations with a man who is part of the ensemble. Some asserted that his actions on and off stage make them avoid shows or other improv community events. A teacher for the theater, who was also an ensemble member, asked that he be removed from this privileged position. The theater, while acknowledging that this man acted inappropriately (they stopped short of calling it “harassment”), declined to remove him from the ensemble. When they chose not to take action, the community member took her concerns to the wider community. This led to a lot of Facebook arguments, email chains, and uncomfortable conversations among improvisers.
What I kept coming back to was how small the request was. The teacher didn’t ask that the man in question be tarred and feathered in the town square. She didn’t ask that he be banned from the theater. She just asked that he not receive a special position of power and privilege. But still people agonized over whether such a response was too harsh.
After one such discussion, a guy friend asked, “Do they want people to learn, or do they want to…you know…crucify people?”
But Should This Ruin His Life?
Often, when a man faces some kind of consequence for his misconduct, a significant portion of the population wants to protect him. Suddenly, America becomes a lot more concerned with how one punishment can change someone’s life.
Should sexually assaulting a girl ruin his life?
Should repeated homophobic jokes ruin his life?
Should saying inappropriate things to fellow improvisers and making people uncomfortable in a community space ruin his life?
When you put it this way, the stakes seem incredibly high for the man at fault. But if we step back and look at what victims and advocates are asking, the price is often not very high at all.
His victims ask that he not get a massive promotion over other qualified applicants. They ask that he not get to host an awards show. They ask that the community not reward him with special privileges when there are others just as deserving. In most cases, “ruining his life” is not even on the table.
To respond appropriately to misconduct, we need to draw distinctions between a man being seriously punished and a man simply not getting what he wants.
Image: Miguel Henriques