The Age of Non-Innocence

When I began working at my first job, women attorneys weren’t welcome to attend the firm’s annual day at the country club. Instead, they and a guest were treated to dinner at a restaurant of their choosing, followed by the best seats at a Broadway show.

Sounded pretty good to me at the time, though I now realize just how exclusionary that was, and how harmful to their careers it may have been to be barred from the camaraderie that developed between partners and associates at these gatherings.

When that practice changed shortly after my arrival, it undoubtedly was a step forward toward gender equality in the workplace. And yet, a step toward gender equality isn’t the same as gender equality. So, against the background of last month’s news cycle, what has become unfortunately clear is that even access to such camaraderie — a seemingly positive step — never became as simple for my female counterparts as it was for my male ones.

The recent torrent of stories of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault, particularly in the workplace, unleashed by the Harvey Weinstein revelations helped me understand that even positive steps may have a darker, riskier side for women than they ever had for me. When colleagues were friendly, I never had to worry that they were testing the waters before making a pass. And I certainly never encountered a pass — or worse.

And then there were all the shocking #MeToo stories. I was so dumbfounded by the sense of privilege on the part of men and the blatant crassness that permeated these stories, that I hope you’ll understand why one of my first reactions was to wonder: who are all these men?!?! In my 46 years in the workforce, I don’t remember seeing or hearing about a case of sexual harassment or abuse in any of my workplaces, even though in one job I mentored several younger women attorneys who felt free to complain about job-related matters because they knew I kept our conversations confidential.

My second reaction, though, was to realize that my experience may not have been the whole story. Did the topic never come up in any of our many discussions because there was no harassment — or because those younger women may have felt uncomfortable discussing such matters, even with me? I didn’t know the answer to this question so I called one of the women with whom I’m still friendly, and she confirmed that there was no harassment at this firm that she was aware of. And that made me feel a little better — but only a little.

Because as I thought further about just how innocent everything seemed to me, I also realized, and have to acknowledge, that while I didn’t know of cases of physical harassment and abuse, I did see cases of verbal harassment. For example, many jokes and comments men (including, to my shame, me) made, thinking them harmless, were in fact sexist, and probably at the least they made some of my female colleagues uncomfortable.

So as I, and I’m sure many other men and women, pay more attention to this serious matter and try to figure out where we fit in, I offer some preliminary ruminations. (Note: while the context of this column is men abusing women, it also pertains when women are the abusers or when there is same-sex abuse.)

  1. Believe the women. While it’s possible that some small minority are fabricating or exaggerating, we can’t allow perfection to be the enemy of the good. The stories ring true, many are supported by contemporaneous communications to close friends or relatives, and enough men have admitted their behavior that the women deserve to be believed. Society has ignored or strong-armed them or bantered away their accusations long enough. It’s time we believed them unless proven otherwise.
  2. Never blame the victim based on what she was wearing or where she was walking because (a) we need to focus on the aggressors, not the victims, (b) dress and location didn’t rape or abuse, some man did, and (c) doing so perpetuates acceptance of an unacceptable situation rather than demanding change.
  3. Presumption of innocence is a legal term applicable in criminal proceedings. It’s not a standard we follow in ordinary life. Courts need to wait until all the facts are in before adjudicating that someone is a sexual predator. We do not. Nor do we need to base such a conclusion on the criminal standard of beyond a reasonable doubt. All we need to do is use our common sense based on the available information. That’s how we normally make decisions. This should be no different.
  4. Nuance is important. We have to distinguish between welcomed flirtation between men and women on the same power/social level on the one hand, and harassment on the other. (There can be no harmless flirtation if one person has more power than the other in a place of employment.) And even with acts of harassment and abuse, we must understand that not every case is the same: an unwelcome hand on a colleague’s buttock is not abuse of underage interns, an aggressive and unwanted kiss is not rape, a sexist joke or comment is not professional retaliation for rejecting unwanted advances, sending provocative or misogynistic emails is not groping or a hand up a skirt.

All, except a welcomed flirtation, are wrong. But they’re not all the same type of wrong. Therefore the punishments shouldn’t all be the same. If it’s a crime, jail is often an appropriate punishment. Some abusers deserve being fired; others may merit professional demotion, sensitivity training, or only embarrassment. How to decide? It’s difficult, but complexity and difficulty don’t mean we act in a broad-brush manner. Rather, it means we need to work hard to be fair.

  1. What are we to do about accusations made after the accused is dead? Here I think due process does come into play, though not in its technical legal sense. Rather, I give it the meaning I learned many years ago from my YU professor in Jewish jurisprudence: basic fairness. On the one hand, the accused men are no longer here to defend themselves; on the other, women who have been hurt are entitled to some redress, even if it’s only being heard and experiencing some sympathy and understanding.

My preliminary answer is — no surprise — it depends. If there are accusations by a number of women or if there was a buzz about such behavior in the community during the accused’s lifetime, then the accusations should be considered seriously in determining the true legacy of the deceased. That’s not the case, however, if it’s only a single accuser against a person with an otherwise unblemished reputation. That doesn’t mean we disbelieve the woman, though — see point number 1 above. So as Tevye would ask: sounds contradictory, no? Yes it does, but life’s complexities often don’t leave us with easy answers. (Here I’m especially torn and would love to hear other approaches.)

  1. The greatest damage caused by men acting badly is done, of course, to their female victims. But all of us, male and female, have suffered. We’ve lost a sense of innocence, perhaps naiveté, about non-romantic male-female relationships, resulting in canceled holiday parties; collegial or sympathetic hugs between old friends being frowned upon; senior male executives who now follow the “Pence Rule” and thus no longer actively mentor women in the workplace, to the detriment of both the women and the organization; supervisors inviting only male colleagues to such after-work activities as sporting events, and men who have always acted appropriately being worried that an inadvertent comment or gesture will be misunderstood, or that perhaps something they did in the past made one of their female acquaintances uncomfortable. (Would that the real culprits felt that way.) True, it’s those of us who were privileged to not have lost our innocence long ago who feel this loss most acutely now. But it still hurts.

I’m the father of four daughters and always have thought of myself as a feminist, both in the general community as well as the Modern Orthodox one. And yet for years I never realized the prevalence, nor truly understood the seriousness, of this cancer in our midst. Perhaps we owe Harvey Weinstein a small — very, very small — thank you for opening both our eyes to this deplorable situation and our hearts to its victims.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is the author of “A Passionate Writing Life: From ‘In my Opinion’ to ‘I’ve Been Thinking’” (available at Teaneck's Judaica House and its website). A retired lawyer and long-time resident of Teaneck with his wife Sharon, they’ve been blessed with four wonderful daughters and five delicious grandchildren.
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