“... At their inauguration, public leaders
must swear to uphold unwritten law and weep
to atone for their presumption to hold office.”
(from “The Republic of Conscience,” Seamus Heaney)
We seem to be living through a watershed moment in American history. With the accusations against Harvey Weinstein and Roy Moore the floodgates have opened and the ubiquitous treatment of women as sexual objects in our culture is coming to light.
The exploitation is certainly not new (or limited to the U.S.), but the readiness of many women to report what they’ve experienced together with our readiness to hear and accept it is. In high profile cases men are paying a price. Does this signal a real change in what’s deemed acceptable behavior generally? For the sake of women and girls, and for all our sakes, let us hope so.
This is never an easy matter for us to confront. As nearly all of us would confess, living healthily and completely above board with the gift of sexuality is a very real challenge. And we’re getting a very public lesson now in how complex we are as human beings. One can be gifted and successful, and still quite immature psychologically and morally. This moment is also asking us to take a hard look at ourselves culturally.
While violence against women is a particular evil that demands addressing on its own merits, we need, too, to make the connection with how overly sexualized and violent our culture has become generally. And how this in turn is related to our habits of consumption — our over consumption of food, material things, stimulation, entertainment. And how these habits can lead to the commodification of people — relationships as “transactions,” others as objects for our satisfaction.
In our current milieu, there is something strangely welcome about hearing a U.S. senator simply admit to having behaved badly, apologize to the person he wronged, and express genuine shame and embarrassment. Before women began demanding it, we seemed on the verge of forgetting that the truth matters, but it does. Truth is powerful; as is an act of confession. Healthy relationships and healthy societies depend on these. Where there is truth, healing can happen and conversation can continue. We’d almost forgotten.
And then there is the huge and closely related matter of power. Women’s stories continue to confirm this potent and dangerous link between power and sexual violence (and violence in general). This, too, is a challenge for all of us. It seems to take a good deal of maturity to exercise power in healthy ways, that is within proper boundaries, and usually as power for, rather than power over.
In all this, we have a long way yet to go. And there are many more women, and many more people, whose stories need to be heard. And many of us who need to listen better and look with new eyes at one another. As Louis C.K. said in his public apology: “I have spent my long and lucky career talking and saying anything I want. I will now take a step back and take a long time to listen.”
In the coming days it will be instructive for us individually and as a nation to follow the work of the House and Senate ethics committees. Obviously, there are degrees of sin and culpability to be determined. And there will be questions of morality to be wrestled with, and higher standards of behavior to be considered. This is a time when our children should be listening in. As we practice at being grown-ups. And search for some moral high ground on which to build a healthier society.
Steve Bullington is a resident of Adrian.