Let Me Count the Ways

I am not certain I ever heard the name Harvey Weinstein before October 5, when The New York Times published its initial exposé of sexual-misconduct allegations and hush-money payoffs. Nor have I followed the increasing media firestorm with any interest though the story is impossible to avoid, even on my medium of choice, National Public Radio. I simply don’t care about  Harvey Weinstein or the women crawling out of the Hollywood woodwork with their stories in some cases over thirty years old, often detailing advances they rejected.

However, this tawdry story contains many elements that I do care about–and care about deeply. Let me count the ways.

I care, for example, that what women of the 1970s thought of as our liberation has become less than 50 years later a respectable version of mewling victimhood. Women who were roundly rewarded for their willing performance on the casting couch are claiming they were powerless to refuse. We were once taught that power consists in taking responsibility for our own actions. These women–and their sisters on college campuses and workplaces across the country–have abdicated that position of power in favor of blaming others for actions they later regret or for circumstances that have now become the latest cause célèbre. 

I care also that art–specifically, the art of motion pictures–is being overtly judged by completely irrelevant factors. Early fallout of the Weinstein story was the suggestion that Wind River would no longer be an Oscar contender. I was immediately reminded of The Birth of a Nation, a shoo-in as 2016 Best Picture until reports surfaced that director and star Nate Parker had been charged with rape and sexual assault in 2001–charges of which a jury acquitted him. I was also reminded of Casey Affleck, who narrowly escaped the same fate and was chosen 2017 Best Actor despite allegations of sexual harassment. (Nor am I unaware of accusations of pedophilia against Charles Dodgson. But fortunately, we still read the tales he told to little Alice Liddell.)

I care even more about the Orwellian twisting of language such that one headline in the Weinstein saga referred to him as part of “a culture of sexual violence” (interestingly, USA Today has re-titled the story). So far as I can determine, no one has accused Harvey Weinstein of actual violence. Instead, the movement of which the alleged victims are a part has coined a new term that has little relationship to any dictionary definition. Even the World Health Organization, whose purview includes a lot of real violence, offers a rather fuzzy definition of sexual violence:

any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, unwanted sexual comments or advances, or acts to traffic, or otherwise directed, against a person’s sexuality using coercion, by any person regardless of their relationship to the victim, in any setting, including but not limited to home and work.

When an arm of the United Nations considers a comment to be violence, we should not be surprised that the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (yes, an agency of the US government) includes showing one’s genitals without consent, masturbating in public, and “watching someone in a private act without their [sic] permission” as violent acts. RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network), which bills itself as “the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization” goes so far as to include as a type of sexual violence the use of technology, “such as digital photos, videos, apps, and social media, to engage in harassing, unsolicited, or non-consensual sexual interactions.” And the site defines sexual violence as “an all-encompassing, non-legal term”–or “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean–neither more nor less.”

When looking, showing, speaking, and even posting a photograph that exists nowhere except in the mysterious regions of cyberspace are all described as violence, Humpty Dumpty has clearly commandeered the dictionary. Nor are linguistic purists such as myself the only ones who should mourn. The true victims in this semantic free-for-all are the ones who have suffered real violence. Rather than raising their fists in girl-power solidarity, the women who have suffered brutal physical assault and violence should disavow any connection with the victim culture of those who sobered up and changed their minds.

Yes, I care about false victimhood, about judging the artist instead of the art, and about the bastardization of language for political ends. But my most central concern in this Weinstein media carnival is the presumption of innocence–the legal principle first articulated under the Justinian Codes as Ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui neat (the proof lies on the one who affirms, not on the one who denies). We inherited that central tenet of Roman justice through the British common law; included it by implication in the 5th, 6th, and 14th Amendments to the Constitution; and established it in case law in Coffin v. United States, 156 U.S. 432 (1895): “The principle that there is a presumption of innocence in favor of the accused is the undoubted law, axiomatic and elementary, and its enforcement lies at the foundation of the administration of our criminal law.”

I realize that the media are not held to any such presumption; to do so would violate both the First Amendment and its underlying assumption of the public’s right to know. However, spending tens of minutes, thousands of words, and millions of pixels on a salacious story is hardly neutralized by inserting “alleged” every now and then. Worse, video tabloids and social media then explode with stories whose presumption is guilt–the more titillating, the better. Lives are ruined every day by the current belief that those accused of sexual misconduct are guilty until proven innocent–especially since one cannot prove a negative. And I fear that this is one pendulum that will never swing in the other direction.

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