Sexual Misconduct, Non-Apologies & Trial by Social Media

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“Respect for ourselves guides our morals,” wrote the Irish novelist Laurence Sterne. “Respect for others guides our manners” 

Newspapers in the UK carried the story this week of the apparent suicide of a Labour party staffer. He had been accused of sexual misconduct.

It is just two weeks since the suicide of a cabinet secretary within the Welsh government. He had also been linked to claims of sexual misconduct.

Meanwhile, the British Prime Minister's deputy has been accused of keeping pornography on his computer. He strenuously denies the accusation.

Allegations of sexual assault or misconduct involving politicians, movie producers and celebrities have featured prominently in news stories at home and abroad for weeks.

The discussion of sexual harassment, especially in the workplace, is one that is long overdue. It is not a debate that should be restricted to the misdeeds of people in high places.

There are, however, some important questions arising from it which are not, as far as I can see, receiving anything like the coverage they deserve.

The first is this: what exactly are our social mores on harassment?

I am not in the habit of making even mildly sexual or flirtatious suggestions to members of the the opposite sex, outside of my wife. Many reading this will be of the same mind. Others may find this too restrictive, feeling that gentle or “playful” flirting is acceptable.

The problem, of course, lies in one’s definition of “playful” and for whom, the initiator or the receiver, it might be deemed to be so.

As a society, we must decide when unwanted provocative suggestions - and especially repeated suggestions - constitute harrassment. And when harassment - especially the type involving physical activity - becomes assault. (There are, of course, types of behaviour for which the only proper word is assault.)

Another question thrown up by the flood of recent stories is this: are we happy to have alleged harassers tried by social media?

It is convenient to air angry passions, be they righteous or self-righteous, via social media. We may feel that by doing so we are adding our voice in some useful way to the condemnation of bad practices.

More often, however, social media discussions become personalised very quickly. “Oh no, not him as well!” and “I had no idea so-and-so would be like that!” are common responses to new misconduct revelations made in social media.

Once we personalise the discussion, we often do little more than engage in herding behaviour, we join a mob.

When it comes to some alleged perpetrators, the fear of being the subject of knee-jerk viral campaigns is leading in some cases to knee-jerk pseudo-apologies.

A few times now we’ve heard this refrain from an accused party (most often a man): “I don’t remember the incident, but I’m sorry if my behaviour caused any offence.”

This is not a real apology. It is too conditional and too vague to be a sincere expression of regret and repentance for a wrong done.

It is more often an attempt to dampen down the passion of the baying lynch party, whose fingers are poised to punch out vitriolic responses on Twitter or Facebook.

Accusations must be made through proper channels. They must then be investigated and adjudged through the legal system, not via Facebook or Twitter. 

Sadly, the very immediacy and (much overrated) potential to right wrongs that make these platforms attractive to some people are responsible for making objective facts subservient to opinion.

The spate of misconduct stories  also indirectly reflects a more general confusion over sexual mores.

In some British pre-school settings, young children are now being encouraged to learn about gender identity and fluidity. This, say the lobbyists who have proposed it, is to allow young children to grow up with a tolerance toward transgenderism.

I suspect their true motive is to promote transgender lifestyles, rather than educate children about gender.

Gender curiosity is normal in children; it is part of their development of identity and a sense of their place in the world.

Conflating this natural curiosity in children with confusion is irresponsible. Using it to try to change sexual mores represents social re-engineering at its worst.

I am not conflating the issues of gender-fluidity and sexual assault. They are clearly miles apart in most respects. My point is that our response to them may reflect a deep, underlying confusion about sexual and gender roles.

It is past time that we faced up to the problems of sexual harassment and assault in the workspace. For too long, we’ve allowed them to go unanswered.

We must not allow our discussion to become party-politicised. In this, there are important lessons to be learned from the current political discourse across the Atlantic.

Last week, US conservatives were reportedly rejoicing over the fact that liberals such as Senator Al Franken are facing charges of assault. This follows the furore surrounding Roy Moore, a candidate for an Alabama senate seat. He has been accused of molesting two women when they were teenagers, denying all charges.

Meanwhile, Democart John Conyers has resigned from the House Judiciary Committee. Conyers admits that he settled a harassment case privately, while still denying any liability over the charges.

Some of the political fallout in these cases seems to have overshadowed the real issues at stake - the manipulation or intimidation of other people, mostly women.

We will doubtless hear many more stories like these in coming days and weeks. Some of the alleged pereptrators will surprise us, others may not.

The fact remains that no matter how well known the individuals involved, there is a gaping chasm between celebrity familiarity and intimate personal knowledge.

We must take a step back, inhale deeply, and think long and hard about what we all consider appropriate behaviour. 

At the end of the day, I think we’ll arrive at the conclusion that old-fashioned good manners, dignity and respect are far less anachronistic than some may have imagined.

 


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