Gary Rosenblatt, a close friend since we met at Yeshiva University decades ago and the longtime editor-publisher of the New York Jewish Week, began a recent column with the following question: “Now that Steven M. Cohen has acknowledged sexually harassing women over the years, does that mean that his substantial body of work as a leading sociologist in the Jewish community should be re-evaluated, even discounted?”
(Parenthetical digression: I never understood how Gary is able to write columns of such a high caliber on a weekly basis. Now that I have been writing for a while on a less frequent basis, I really don’t understand it. Wow! End digression.)
This reminded me of a similar question Rabbi J. David Bleich asked in the fall 1991 issue of Tradition magazine, in an article titled “Utilization of Scientific Data Obtained Through Immoral Experimentation.” In that essay, R. Bleich thoughtfully discussed, from ethical and halachic perspectives, whether it is proper to use the results of the cruel, inhumane, and immoral scientific experiments the Nazis conducted on inmates of concentration camps and prisoners of war.
These questions are, I believe, a subset of a larger issue that recently has exploded on the front pages of newspapers, in social media, and on talk shows; namely, in addition to judicial processes and punishments, how do we deal with bad people, and what do we do with their work product? Do we banish them from society; stop watching, reading, and listening to their creative works; demolish their memorials and remove their names from all places of honor; revoke their awards; erase them from history?
There is, of course, no magic bullet; no one answer that will fit every situation. Rather, as is often the case in trying to resolve a sensitive or difficult problem, the answer is “it depends,” based on a careful analysis of the facts of each case and weighing factors that impact on those facts.
And it’s some of those factors, rather than conclusions, that I’d like to concentrate on here. Please note that more often than not no one factor is dispositive, more than one must often be considered, and to complicate matters even further, different ones can lead to different answers.
A critical factor, near or at the top of the list, is context. Thus, for example, while it seems obvious that we should not use Nazi experiments about alleged heredity or genetic issues with Jews, Roma, or gay people because of their inherent bias, that’s not necessarily true for Nazi experiments about, say, effective treatment for hypothermia. Similarly, disregarding studies about bias and other gender issues that were created by a social scientist who has admitted to sexual harassment does not mean we automatically need to throw out his studies about non-gender issues. (I assume for purposes of this analysis that there are no questions about the design, methodology, and scientific reliability of the Cohen and Nazi studies and experiments and their conclusions, and if no ethical issues were involved there would be no scientific reason to reject them.)
But even here, other factors intrude. Using important scientific information that is not replicable because the only way to obtain it is through immoral means (see, Nazi hypothermia experiments) may be right if it is the only way to save lives. But that might not be the case with experiments involving problematic ethics (such as lack of adequate consent by the subjects), which can be replicated on an untainted foundation.
We also must consider whether the work can be separated from its creator. Thus, for example, a sexual harasser may properly deserve to lose his job although it still may be appropriate to use the results of his labor. On the other hand, in matters of culture, this sort of separation may not be possible — but as an esthetic experience rather than as an ethical decision. While some still may be able to enjoy Bill Cosby’s humor notwithstanding his now proven behavior, for others revulsion at the man poisons the entire experience.
Age, position, and the specifics of the bad act must, of course, be considered as well. Let’s not automatically treat racist teenage social media rantings the same way that we treat similar statements made by adults — especially adults in responsible positions. And moral failings by spiritual and moral leaders, such as rabbis, priests, and teachers, might need to be handled differently than such failings by sports or entertainment figures, and those, in turn, might need to be handled differently than such failings by people who are not idolized by children.
As for the specifics of the bad act, I’ve noted before (“The age of non-innocence,” 12/14/17), that just as there are degrees of robbery or murder, not all sex harassers are the same. A sexist joke or comment is not professional retaliation for rejecting unwanted advances, and sending provocative or misogynistic emails is not groping or a putting a hand up a skirt. While all are wrong, they may, depending on all the factors involved, merit different treatment.
And if the present weren’t difficult enough, we also have to deal with the past. I’m old enough to remember a time when the New York Times (yes, the Times!) could, as part of its description of a woman appointed to a federal position, call her “attractive with golden blond hair, blue eyes and a comely five foot five figure.” Seriously sexist if written today? Sure. Back then? Well, we now understand that it was objectively sexist, but that understanding was not as clear then.
But the fact that mores have changed, boundaries have been moved, and understandings have sharpened doesn’t mean that saying “well, it was the times” ends the discussion. Some things were wrong then even if too many “good folk” didn’t realize it, or made believe that they didn’t realize it. Slavery was not a “peculiar institution” and segregation was not an “American dilemma.” They were evil. As was racial and religious discrimination and racist and anti-Semitic language. “Everybody was doing it” doesn’t work any better for adults than “all my friends are doing it” works for teenagers.
Here, too, context is important. Confederate statues erected to commemorate the institutionalization of white dominance over an African-American populace that are situated in public parks, buildings, and educational institutions are, and were meant to be, an honor to those perched on the pedestals and their cause — and a sign of oppression. This is very different from busts and plaques in historical museums. We therefore must be careful not to mix up the two; rather, we need to keep and never expunge the history while revoking the honors and erasing the oppression.
I realize I’ve asked a lot of questions and reached only a few conclusions, and tentative ones at that. That is because I’m still grappling, with some exceptions, with how to parse each case so justice is done. So please grapple with me; I’d love to know what you think. Comments, objections, criticisms, and suggestions (civilly stated, please) will be most welcome.