Sunday , December 03, 2017 - 5:00 AM1 comment
The list of men credibly accused of sexual assault or harassment has grown to the length of a Charles Dickens novel, and like a Dickens novel, it offers spectacularly instructive episodes. We are all learning more than we care to know about the nature of human beings and the functions of morality.
For this, we are indebted to Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., Bill O'Reilly, Roy Moore, Al Franken, John Conyers, Matt Lauer and many others — notably, let us not forget, Donald Trump.
Some of these names came as no great surprise, but other charges hit like a lightning bolt from a clear sky. If your daughter or sister is at risk of being molested by George H.W. Bush or Garrison Keillor, can we have confidence she'd be safe with Tom Hanks? Mitt Romney? The Dalai Lama?
In this teachable moment, some important lessons are new, at least to many men, such as: Women, who have made such great progress in so many areas, still endure soul-sapping abuses on a regular basis. It's a surprise to discover how many grotesque ways male offenders devise to torment their victims. I remember a time, about two months ago, when masturbation was something done furtively and secretly, not before unwilling audiences.
But much of what we have seen merely confirms truths that are so fundamental they can easily be forgotten. For example:
1) Power corrupts. What almost every one of those implicated has in common is that success delivered him into a position where lesser mortals felt obliged to do his bidding. Outsize accomplishments in any field expose the achiever to outsize temptations, one being the possibility of getting away with behavior that would ruin ordinary people.
So rarely does anyone tell these titans "no" that they come to assume that no one has the right to. Why bother with seduction if you can simply impose your will without fear?
2) We often see what we want to see. Many Republicans who denounced Bill Clinton's lechery voted for Trump, who boasted about groping women and walking in on undressed beauty pageant contestants. Then there are the Democrats who apply far tighter standards today than when President Clinton was under siege.
For some of us, selective morality is the only morality. The sins of our enemies are scarlet, while those of our allies tend to register in the faintest pink.
3) Shame is useful. Seeing the sudden immolation of important figures for their vile deeds, men who might be tempted to transgress will be frightened into propriety. "There are several good protections against temptation," said Mark Twain, "but the surest is cowardice." Men who have assumed they could get away with such abuses are on notice that their victims might not be cowed into silence.
4) People are complicated. "Today" co-host Savannah Guthrie commended Lauer's accusers for coming forward but said, "He is my dear, dear friend and my partner, and he is beloved by many, many people here." Maybe she's a hypocrite who let her relationship with him blind her (see point 2). Or maybe he has fine qualities — and concealed his terrible faults from many of those around him. The possible dichotomy shouldn't surprise any adult who knows any other adults.
During his public career, George H.W. Bush typically exhibited dignity and restraint. But now we learn he also pawed women who were in no position to object. Does that despicable behavior mean he's a complete fraud? Or does it mean he is afflicted by dark traits that sometimes overcome his better ones?
Cosby, Weinstein and Trump have severe, pervasive character defects that make their virtues, if any, immaterial. But unalloyed villainy is not the norm even among those who do bad things — and those of us who have refrained from doing those bad things should not be too certain of our invulnerability to vice.
"The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart," wrote the Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. "And even within the hearts overwhelmed with evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains ... an un-uprooted small corner of evil."
The public disgrace of so many men should be welcomed because it signals an overdue shift in our moral codes and standards of conduct. Those are useful in guiding the bad, the good and everyone in between.
Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune. Twitter: @SteveChapman13.
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