Disposability and distancing from collective complicity
In October 2017, two major media outlets simultaneously published statements by dozens of famous actresses naming that they had experienced sexual harassment and assault by powerful Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. Since that time many survivors have come forward sharing their stories of abuse in the entertainment industry and naming men who have caused harm.
Many of these men are well-known celebrities, like comedian Louis C.K.; actors Ben Affleck, Dustin Hoffman, Ed Westwick, Jeffrey Tambor, Jeremy Piven, Kevin Spacey, Richard Dreyfuss, Steven Seagal, Tom Sizemore; singer Nick Carter; chefs Mario Batali and John Besh; and news anchors Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer.
Survivors have named abuse by executives, producers, and directors with significant positions of power in the entertainment industry — including Adam Fields, Brett Ratner, Gary Goddard, Hadrian Belove, James Toback, John Lasseter, Russell Simmons, and Shadie Elnashai — and by men involved in positions of power on specific shows such as Andy Henry (CSI), Andrew Kreisberg (Arrow, Supergirl), and Matthew Weiner (Mad Men).
The broader business world has also been rocked by survivors naming abuse by corporate executives in all fields including media and publishing. Politicians have also been named including former US president George H.W. Bush and current US president Donald Trump.
In the wake of the allegations some companies — including the BBC, Minnesota Public Radio, NBC, Netflix, Nickelodeon, NPR, VICE, and Warner Brothers — suspended the named men from their jobs, fired them, or cancelled deals. Kevin Spacey’s image was erased from productions already in process.
The responses by survivors in the entertainment industry have been mixed. Many called for centering of survivors’ needs, and focusing on solidarity with survivors rather than the impact on perpetrators. Some have expressed that tangible actions like firing helped them feel that they had been listened to, taken seriously, and valued. Others pointed out that these are mild consequences compared to what survivors go through and that many men who have caused harm are still in positions of power. Some expressed glee that men who caused harm are finally suffering, and called for more intense punishment. Some expressed shock and disbelief that men whom they had had positive experiences with had caused harm.
All of these responses are feelings I’ve had about the sexualized violence I’ve experienced. When I think about the people who have harmed me, at times I’ve wanted them to suffer, I’ve questioned my own judgment, I’ve doubted whether it really happened, I’ve wished that people would believe me, I’ve wished that my communities would shun the perpetrators so I don’t have to see them or interact with them any more.
And, I know that ending sexualized violence is not about getting rid of a few ‘bad apples’. Rape culture, like white supremacy, is systemic, structural, and collectively created and perpetuated. While I have never knowingly sexually harassed anyone who I work with (though I want to leave the possibility open that I caused harm unknowingly), I have caused other kinds of harm, in everyday ways through my words and other actions. Looking deeply, I can see how there are things I do that contribute to rape culture even while I also make efforts to consciously and intentionally build consent culture.
And so I wonder, what does it mean when the response to workplace sexual harassment is to individualize the harm through acts such as firing perpetrators? Is there also work being done to examine the collective complicity that creates workplaces founded on power-over structures, where sexual harassment happens all the time, where there is widespread denial and minimization, and where survivors are punished for speaking up? In many of these instances, it has been revealed that there were patterns of harmful behaviour that had been going on for years and in many instances had been publicly witnessed and actively covered up. Even the media story that broke about Harvey Weinstein took years to come to light, and exposed decades of legal, political, and journalistic coverup and facilitation of his abuses. When professional guilds and employers expel individual perpetrators, is it a form of collective denial and distancing? Is this highly visible action more about trying to salvage corporate reputation, rather than doing deep transformational work to dismantle rape culture?
Anti-racist and anti-colonial activists have pointed out that actions made by white people and by settlers to address systemic racism and colonization are often “moves to innocence,” in which white people and settlers distance themselves from complicity, try to relieve feelings of guilt and shame, and fantasize an easy and known, predictable path forward that does not involve any real discomfort or change. These moves do not involve any real giving up of power, privilege, or material assets gained through stolen land and labour. When we collectively fantasize that sexualized violence will be ended through removing ‘those bad people’ from our social circles, workplaces, or communities, is this another manifestation of a move to innocence? I wonder, is individual punishment/expulsion really an effective counterpoint to collective complicity, denial, and minimization?
Rightly, survivors in the entertainment industry have rejected efforts to victim-blame and questions about why they did not come forward sooner. We know that survivors may not come forward immediately for many reasons including fear of retaliation or other negative consequences, not feeling there is sufficient proof to be believed, wanting to avoid thinking or talking about what happened, and shame. This seems like an important opportunity for industries and workplaces to look internally at structural injustices and factors that contribute to collective complicity in violence. What is it within us, and within the collective cultures that we are immersed in, that keeps violence rolling?
And what does it look like if we do not try to displace and distance ourselves from people who acknowledge the harm they have caused? AVP works with people who have caused harm and who want to transform. Some of the most challenging and rewarding work I have done as a survivor is to work with people who have been violent and who want to change. I don’t know if Louis C.K. wants to change, but I did notice that he acknowledged his harm and apologized for it. And so I wonder, what if, instead of cutting ties with Louis C.K., companies like FX and HBO had worked with him (without paying him) and with survivors to create a show about sexual harassment in the workplace, about rape culture in the entertainment industry and the difficult processes of personal and collective transformation? Would this have provided a different kind of accountability than refusing to work with him?
For me, collective accountability includes deep reflection on who is listened to, believed, paid attention to, and valued. And it includes reflecting on why white women in Hollywood seized on #metoo with no acknowledgment of Tarana Burke, the Black activist who coined #metoo a decade ago, or the context for her work to uplift Black and Brown poor and working class women who are particularly targeted by and vulnerable to sexualized violence. Even now with powerful Hollywood women’s recent launch of the Time’s Up campaign, there is both a wonderful attempt to acknowledge and leverage privilege and power and also a total disconnect in promoting lawsuits and reporting with no acknowledgment that the settler state, surveillance, deportation, and the criminal justice system are part of the matrix of violence against Indigenous women, undocumented women, and Black communities. The emphasis on legal action as recourse for workplace sexual harassment may make sense in the corporate world, but it ignores the harms of the legal system for people who are undocumented, sex workers, and others who are the most vulnerable to workplace violence and abuse precisely because some of the pieces of power employers use are threats to call immigration, police, etc. This focus on the justice system also ignores the tremendous work of Black Lives Matter, the Movement for Black Lives, and other movements that expose the harms of the prison industrial complex.
Similarly, calling for greater numbers of women in positions of corporate power does not address the great harms of capitalism. We don’t just need different faces in the same structures, the structures themselves are what cause harm. Margaret Thatcher did not make life better for working class and poor women in England; Kim Campbell did not address colonialism and the impacts on Indigenous women in ‘Canada’.
This work is never perfect and we are all learning together, all the time. I hope that Time’s Up connects with movements on the frontlines to listen, learn, and ask how the vast financial and political resources that the privileged women in the campaign are seeking to bring together (so awesome) can best be leveraged for the kind of deep, transformational work that is needed. I hope that we all consider what in our families, workplaces, schools, and communities contributes to rape culture, and make commitments to learn, unlearn, and make tangible changes that will foster consent culture. Everyday acts are what collectively create rape culture and everyday acts are also what will help dismantle it. There is something that all of us can do.