We (still) need to talk about Harvey Weinstein. We also need to talk about Bill O’Reilley and James Woods and Bill Cosby and Roger Ailes and Kevin Spacey and John Besh and Brett Ratner and Jon Grissam and Dustin Hoffman and Michael Oreskes and Leon Weiseltier and Joss Whedon and, yes, even Elie Weisel. We have, of course, talked for years about Bill Clinton and Woody Allen and Clarence Thomas and Roman Polanski and Mark Foley and Ted Kennedy and Denny Hastert and our self-designated Pussy-Grabber-in-Chief Donald Trump, but we (still) need to talk about them, too. We need to talk about men who harass and assault Congresswomen on the floor of of the House and about the laws Congressmen have passed to facilitate their culture of sexual harassment and assault. We need to talk about the culture of sexual predation in higher education and the ways that early education teaches girls to accept that they are prey.
The sheer number of links in the previous paragraph indicates that we are, in some ways, having those conversations now. News outlets are even discussing a “Weinstein Effect” and wondering out loud whether we’ve reached a tipping point in our cultural tolerance for sexual predators in positions of power. The light, they speculate, has finally pierced the darkness, and we are beginning to learn all about the egregious behavior that has been taking place beneath our noses or behind our backs. Now, they argue, we finally know.
We need to talk about the “we” in that “now we know.” Who is the “we” that knows now, the “we” that was previously in the dark? It certainly isn’t women. None of the women assaulted and harassed by producers or directors or professors or bosses or legislators or coworkers (etc. etc. etc.) need to be told that our culture prolifically produces men who are equally prolific sexual predators. No one needs to tell these women that powerful and charismatic men are likely to view them as fair game for sexual advances as a matter of course. And no one needs to tell them that their reports of this behavior will fall on deaf ears or, worse, result in stigmatizing and punitive backlash. Women don’t need to be told that, in the eyes of powerful men and the institutions that support them, the interests of male predators are privileged over the bodies, minds and careers of women. They don’t need to discover that, in our institutions, male power trumps the humanity of women. Women knew all of this long before Harvey Weinstein became a watchword.
“Now we know” is a misguided formula for discussing the power imbalances and sexual vulnerabilities of patriarchy. That formulation substitutes one group–the men who didn’t know the extent of sexual harassment and assault surrounding us–for the whole of our culture. In doing so, it repeats the dehumanization of women that enables sexual predators and silences the women they target: the “we” who matter didn’t know, which means that those who knew already don’t matter (or don’t matter as much). If we aren’t careful, our language of public revelation will reinforce a public in which women’s voices and women’s experiences can’t appear, a public where something only counts as knowledge when it is known by men, where something only becomes fact when men accept it. Sidelining women’s voices and women’s knowledge is a central pillar of the institutions that have not only allowed but actively nurtured the sexual predation currently in the news. After all, if we–men and institutions–believed women when they reported sexual misconduct and if we took predatory behavior seriously–if we accepted the humanity of women to the same degree we assert our own–then no man who serially harasses or assaults women could rise to a position of power. But, of course, our institutions don’t listen to women and don’t take their experiences seriously (the proof of that is in the ubiquity of the current “revelations”).
What we–and here I mean we men who need to be allies to the half of humanity ignored in our universalizing constructions of public knowledge–need to learn from the present moment isn’t only or even especially that the women around us have to navigate a world filled with would be abusers. We need to know now that they already knew, that what we take as new knowledge was always available to us if we could have cultivated the ability to shut up and listen. We need to know now that not knowing about something as pervasive as sexual misconduct by powerful men (and their less powerful counterparts) is not accidental: such spectacular ignorance is engineered, and anything engineered has motivations behind it.
Some men are motivated to silence women and discount their experiences of harassment because it allows them to continue harassing and assaulting women. For the rest of us, we need to discover what motivates us to close our ears to women’s stories of sexual predators, to remain ignorant of facts that half the world knows. Does it make it easier to watch the movies and listen to the songs we like (do we even need mention the sports figures with long histories of violence against women)? Are we afraid one of our heroes will turn out to be a dirtbag and our feelings will be hurt? Are we afraid it will require us to risk our careers or friendships or even just our comfort? Are we ashamed of past actions or afraid they will finally have consequences? Do we just want to imagine that the world is a better place than the evidence suggests? Whatever the motivations may be, men need to learn why we don’t want to know what we know now. If we don’t address those motivations, we will engineer a new way to not know it again in the near future.
As a closing thought: everything I just said about men not knowing the eminently knowable facts of women’s experiences applies equally to white people not knowing the experiences of people of color. The willful ignorance of John Kelly and his supporters that is currently on display serves as an adequate example: if we argue that people in the 19th century didn’t generally accept the humanity of black people–and that is a logically necessary premise for the claim that compromise could have precluded the Civil War–then we forget the very large percentage of the population who were absolutely certain of black humanity: black people. Two-thirds of the population of South Carolina knew that black people were human and shouldn’t be enslaved. Any argument about what “people” knew back then or what “people” thought at the time that only takes into account the opinions of white people has already accepted the premise that black people weren’t people. Black people are human beings. Black people have always been human beings, and they have always known that they are. When we (white people) say “Now we know” that black people are human beings, we silence black voices and denigrate black experience. White people don’t have to know a thing for it to be knowledge; we don’t have to agree with a thing for it to be a fact.