aNewDomain –When the Kevin Spacey story first broke last month, the House of Cards actor stood accused of one 30-year-old act of wrongdoing: aggressively hitting on a 14-year-old boy.
It’s a real and serious crime, no question. Adults shouldn’t proposition children ever. But Netflix’ reaction, which was to distance itself from the star of its hit show by prematurely announcing the cancellation of the show next year, was the wrong response at the time.
It came, after all, well before any other people stepped forward to say Spacey had sexually harassed them. Some of Spacey’s accusers worked on “House of Cards.” After that, Netflix would have been derelict not to put Spacey on hiatus as the accusations get sorted out, and to fire him for creating a toxic work environment for its current employees. Which is what it did.
Justice or professional blackballing?
It’s a good thing, this #MeToo movement. Sexual harassers getting their just comeuppance is a good thing. It is decades, centuries, millennia overdue. And it’s a great thing that victims, who are mostly women, are getting their voices heard and speaking out sexual harrassment specifically and in general.
But what I can’t figure out is why the typical knee-jerk response to these accusations is to fire the accused harrasers — often from jobs in which they’ve yet to be accused of doing anything wrong?
The NYPD may in fact file criminal charges against Weinstein, a guy whose name will now and forever be preceded by the phrase “disgraced Hollywood producer.” But the Weinstein scandal is the exception.
For most men accused of sexual harassment and assault during this post-Weinstein outcry, the standard demand is: Fire him!
Social shaming and the new Hester Prines
Such responses are both too little and too much. Think about it. For victims, the knowledge that their attacker lost their job hardly rises to the level of even minimal justice. It’s not as if it protects other women from falling prey to the same accuser, who’s still at large and free to keep doing it in his future jobs and workplaces.
Moreover, any sanction short of a prison term for a rapist or a big-time sexual harasser is bound to feel trivial. And it is bound to feel as if society doesn’t weigh victimhood, as if victims are disposable.
And what about those men who are falsely accused?
Think about what happened at the University of Virginia, and probably also with the Columbia student accused by a famously mattress-toting classmate.
Anyway you look at it, depriving someone of a livelihood for a crime he or she didn’t commit is eggregious. We live in a capitalist society without a minimal safety net, so losing your job can — if you are unable to find a new one — can seriously harm and even kill you.
Consider, also, sexual harassment accusations around events that didn’t happen at the physical workplace. The connection between employment and sexual harassment and rape is as arbitrary and odd as that between employment and healthcare. If a society determines that healthcare is important, it should be available to everyone, not just workers fortunate enough to land a 40-hour-a-week job working at a company big enough to offer a health plan. Similarly, what does sexually harassing 30-plus years ago at a private party — yes, even a boy — have to do with Spacey’s then-current gig with Netflix?
It didn’t turn out to be the case, but try to imagine that the entire brief against Spacey had never expanded beyond
He would likely have had trouble finding work in the future. You might say good, who cares? But this outcome would have been fair neither to Rapp nor to Spacey.
If Rapp is telling the truth, it would be better for that truth to be determined by the courts, should he decide to file charges. Statues of limitation are challenging in these cases, but the solution is for state legislatures to fix that problem, and for prosecutors to be induced to go after cases tougher than a slamdunk. As it is, political leaders are abdicating justice to social media lynch mobs and employers. There are also civil courts, where the standard of proof is lower.
As far as Spacey goes, is it ethical to take money out of his pocket over an accusation that has never been tried, much less proven, by a judge or jury?
On the other side of the coin, Fox News waited way too long to fire Bill O’Reilly and Roger Ailes. I’m not typically sympathetic to corporations or their bottom lines, but if I’m the boss at a company, anyone who forces my organization to pay a multimillion-dollar settlement to a sexual harassment victim — because, let’s face it, corporations only pay when they’re guilty — is out the door before it happens again. Mark Halperin allegedly harassed women at ABC; ABC’s firing thus seems cut and dry.
Of the recent firings, NPR handled things better than most. Michael Oreskes hung on to his job as long as his accusers were out of his past, from his previous position at the New York Times. They let him go after a female NPR staffer said he’d harassed her.
These cases of sexual harassment and assault are more straightforward from a human-resources point of view: employers must not permit a hostile work environment. That requires them to fire harassers. But this does not go far enough. What of their victims? Is victims’ only recourse to sue in civil court, or try to get a bookpublished? Here too, we need to adjust the criminal justice system to a post-“Mad Men” world that understands the toxic effects of workplace harassment.
Bill O’Reilly probably misses his job, but he’s still rich and life goes on.
As I’ve written before, employers have way too much power over workers. Bosses have every right — and the duty — to fire those who abuse other employees at their current workplace, but they shouldn’t be allowed to punish anyone for actions, no matter how heinous, that took place outside the workplace or at a previous job.
Otherwise we wind up with insane politically-oriented censorship firings like the case of the neo-Nazi dude who never shared his views at his job at a pizzeria, yet got canned after he was photographed in Charlottesville, and the liberal woman whose marketing company employer let her go after she gave the finger to Trump’s motorcade — while biking nowhere near her work[lace.
Women should keep calling out those who sexually harrass and assult them. And if found guilty, those sexual harassers and assaulters should face prison time. But so should false accusers.
As for bosses, they need to start minding their own business — at their own businesses.
For aNewDomain in New York, I’m Ted Rall.
Cover image via TheWeeklyChallenger.com.Inset images: Kevin Spacey in 2008 via Wikimedia Commons.. Anthony Rapp in September 2017, Associated Press.