I have been closely following the social transformation that is the #MeToo movement since the Weinstein story broke in October. As I wrote at the time, it has been a remarkable cultural moment that is redefining sociological mores by the day.
Naturally, I thought it was an excellent choice when Time Magazine named “the silence breakers” as their 2017 Person[s] of the Year.
Their stories have been hard to hear, not just because nationally recognized figures were involved as both victim and perpetrator, but especially because it shines a brilliant light on the behaviors that many men in power somehow saw as acceptable workplace behavior.
As I tweeted at the time, nobody should consider “normal” Matt Lauer’s alleged behavior of locking women into his office and asking for sexual favors. How do such things happen? Our Manichean sensibilities (dividing good people from evil people) provide an easy answer but one that is incomplete. As is true with issues of criminal justice, the question is not whether or not there are “bad apples” but rather what is it in the organizational culture that makes such offenses possible by the bad apples?
My state of Michigan has been overwhelmed the last several weeks with the sentencing hearings of Larry Nassar, the sports medicine “doctor” who pled guilty to illegal genital touching of minor girls who were gymnasts under his care. He had charges in both Ingham County (Lansing) and neighboring Eaton County. Over 150 girls and women gave victim statements in the Ingham hearing and another 50 plus in Eaton (including a father who understandably tried to attack Nassar when his three daughters told their story).
In the wake of the Ingham county hearing, the Michigan State president and athletic director have resigned. There are now state and federal investigations underway to determine if there were mandatory reporters at MSU with knowledge of what was going on. The law requires certain positions to report suspected minor abuse to authorities when it becomes known to the occupant. It is quite likely that the ongoing impact of the Nassar atrocities on Michigan State’s employees (and reputation) will be more serious that what Penn State dealt with in the Jerry Sandusky offenses.
This is as it should be. Sexual harassment, abuse, and the advantages of power are not simply personal choices. They have structural relationships. To address the occurrence without looking at the levers in the system that make it work, is to move from today’s story to tomorrow’s.
To return to the criminal justice example, I heard a great interview with a retired police superintendent around the time of Ferguson or Baltimore (I can’t find the link). He suggested that the solution to fixing issues of excessive use of force among officers was simple — make the occurrence count against the promotion possibilities of the shift supervisor. If that person knew that he would be held accountable for behaviors of his officers, then he would work to make sure there were bright lines on behavior and prioritization of de-escalation training.
This systemic component of sexual harassment is why all of the articles like this one by Kathleen Parker are so wrongheaded. Titled “A #MeToo backlash is inevitable“, it argues that our real problem is that men can be accused within the media or social media and give rise to “high-tech lynch mobs” (a terrible use of a phrase since that was Clarence Thomas’ defense before his Senate hearing — he could not be confirmed today based on what he admitted to at the time).
Our reaction should not be develop a scale that charts behavior from the merely boorish and juvenile on the one hand to forcible rape on the other. The structural issues do include protections of due process but these cannot squeeze out the issues of organizational culture.
This past week, Christianity Today’s Kate Shellnutt was reporting from the Quadrennial Forum of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities. She live-tweeted some really interesting insights along the way. One of these involved comparative research on sexual assault at CCCU, other Private, and Public institutions. The good news is that CCCU schools show less likelihood of sexual asssult, especially in relationships. The absence of party and hook-up culture plays a key role. However, students and faculty at the CCCU schools report a higher level of gender-based discrimination than other schools.
(I really need to get my hands on this research. If you want to see Kate’s descriptions, her twitter handle is @kateshellnut) from which I’ve taken the above paragraph.)
The research Kate summarized underscores my larger point. The culture of our schools may well contain elements that are noxious but they don’t get played out because of restrictions on alcohol and premarital sex. If we want to change that dynamic, we have to look at the cultural precursors and not simply the abusive behavior.
Which brings me to my #TimesUp moment.
Yesterday I learned that a faculty member at an institution where I worked in the past was named in a sexual harassment suit. It’s a horrible situation alleging abuse of the counseling relationship, the pastoral relationship, and in part the professorial relationship. There appears to have been an affair, which while purportedly consensual, raises all the alarms about power imbalances and advantage.
I was the chief academic officer at that institution a decade ago. While this incident occurs well after I moved to Michigan, I knew that there were difficulties the faculty member had in relating to colleagues, students, and church people. Again, nothing rose to the level of the incident currently being reported.
And yet, I find myself in the position of the shift commander who overlooked police misbehavior. Should I have taken a harder line with regard to issues of how one relates to others? Would it matter if I exercised my authority to put the faculty member on some kind of disciplinary procedure that could either correct the precursor behaviors or see the faculty member leave the institution?
I don’t know the answers to these questions and never will. What I do know is that I need to be far more of an activist on gender issues on my current campus and across Christian Higher Education in general.
I’m sure I can identify with those Michigan State employees who had some inkling about the Nassar stories and thought that it wasn’t their place to engage.
I guess that those of us who have been in position to make a difference need to claim the #MeToo hashtag as well. It would at least remind us all that this is serious and that the problem is not going away until we address the larger system and cultural dynamics that support it.