As the tidal wave of protests about sexual assault, bullying, and ‘inappropriate conduct’ becomes a worldwide tsunami, there is an inevitable backlash.
Trivial matters are being elevated into career wrecking accusations, goes the complaint. Women are being treated like helpless, delicate Victorian maidens, they say. All of this will backfire on the women, who will find employers reluctant to appoint them and suitors too fearful to court them. There is widespread hysteria and a conspicuous lack of due process.
I’m not sure what due process has been accorded to the women – and men – who’ve been groped, assaulted or raped, but I agree we should not rush to judgment over unsubstantiated accusations. And it is important to maintain a sense of proportion about some of the more marginal complaints. But the scale of the bullying and abuse suffered by women across the world is beyond doubt.
The sea-change began in October with revelations about Harvey Weinstein but spread quickly to numerous powerful men in the media. And it has rippled far beyond that. Last month, Beihang University in Beijing fired one of its most prestigious scholars, Professor Chen Xiaowu, for inappropriate behaviour. The university put out a statement we should all adopt: “Morality and ability are paired; actions and talent are one.” The scandals have resonated all over the world. Universities, TV companies, aid agencies, government bodies, have all found themselves having to justify their conduct - and their lack of remedial processes when their behaviour is found wanting.
Ironically, since it was clearly no part of his intention, the Weinstein affair may end up helping woman everywhere. It will help ensure that, finally, they will be listened to. Now we have shocking stories about aid workers employing prostitutes and staging orgies. We hear tales of UN officials coercing war victims into sex. We see the impunity these men enjoy even when their misconduct is revealed. Does anyone believe we would be hearing all these stories – on this massive scale – but for #MeToo, #TimesUp, Call Out Your Pig and all the other movements started by brave young women angry about the indignities thrust upon them?
In the UK, even the fuss over unequal pay for women at the BBC plays into the same narrative. 100 years after winning the vote, women are still fighting for equality, for recognition, for respect. This year, as more British companies are forced to publish their gender pay gap, this story will run and run.
Here too there has been a backlash. What are these posh Oxbridge-educated women complaining about? After all, the aggrieved BBC women are all relatively well paid. (Although not, perhaps, relative to the men.) But the principles of fairness and transparency these women are demanding will benefit women everywhere. Whether it’s over pay, bullying or harassment, secrecy is our greatest enemy, openness our strongest weapon.
When we threaten change on this scale we frighten the people in power, especially the men who benefit most from a lazy status quo. And they fight back. Yes, Harvey was a bully, but he had great taste in movies. Yes, Kevin Spacey was ‘inappropriate’, but he is a wonderful actor. Of course men should behave themselves, but we mustn’t let this hysteria build into a witch-hunt.
I think that Chinese university has it right: “Morality and ability are paired; actions and talent are one.”
This is not a witch-hunt. It’s an exorcism.