It’s Not That Hard, People

(That’s what she said.)

David Brooks is annoying me again.

He does this thing every week with Gail Collins (who I had not been reading until my dad sent me something. Why had I not been reading her? I’d certainly heard of her. And she is absolutely delightful.) where they have a little conversation about whatever. This week it’s Herman Cain. (If you follow the link, I want you to know – normally these conversations are a lot less one-sided. Here it seems like David Brooks is just writing a column and ignoring Gail Collins’s interjections.)

And here’s the thing. I am paying zero attention to whatever allegations are being made against Herman Cain. Because he’s not going to be the Republican candidate for president in 2012. I don’t think he even wants to be the Republican candidate for president in 2012. And if he’s not going to be the candidate, then he’s just a successful businessman and lobbyist who’s a creep towards female underlings. Yawn.

But it’s really irritating that in 2011 a man as well-respected as David Brooks (and yes, I’m being serious. I may disagree with the guy 75% of the time, but he’s smart, erudite, has a column for the New York Fucking Times and several best-selling books. He’s not just a doof.) can write so ham-fistedly about sexual harassment.

I mean, first he talks about “Hey, if Clinton got away with it, heh heh,” like, no, Clinton didn’t get away with it. Clinton got impeached about it. It derailed his entire second term. Sure, he didn’t lose his job over it but, you know. We’re still talking about it over a decade later so I’d say he didn’t exactly get away with anything. And I’m not saying that anything Clinton did was, you know, okay, but let’s not pretend that the whole country went, “Blow job? Who cares!” and returned to their daily business.

Then he wants to do this thing where you’re morally suspect if you take a pay-off in a sexual harassment case. He says, “In the old days, somebody who allowed a predator to continue his hunting in exchange for money would certainly be considered a sinner.” Well, yes, but that’s sufficiently vague that I’m inclined to ask, “A predator of what? A hunter of what?” And even with those vague terms, let’s not just say “somebody,” like they’re a random witness or even, say, the owner of the hunting grounds. Let’s say “a victim of the hunter who maybe didn’t have a gun with which to fight back and just wanted to go lick his wounds in private.” Because that’s what we’re talking about here. And that victim of the hunter is maybe not the world’s greatest hero for choosing to lick wounds instead of fight back, but I’m disinclined to call the person a sinner.

(Also, “sinner,” David? We’re not talking about standing before God, here. I know you’re all for bringing back old-school morality, and I only partially disagree with you, but we are talking about the legal system. Let’s talk “actionable” and “not actionable”; not “sinner.”)

I really enjoy when he says, “I’m reluctant to judge people in these circumstances, but I’m inclined to agree. Am I missing something?” You crack me up, David. “Reluctant to judge,” indeed.

Finally, he goes into this dither:

Where is the harassment line these days? If an employer asks a woman to come to his hotel room and she says no and he lets the matter drop, is that harassment? I confess I’m not sure. I’ve worked at places where people who worked together had romantic relationships. I presume those relationships started with one person making an overture. Is it harassment if the overture is rejected but not harassment if the overture is accepted or is any overture between people at the same firm harassment on its face? Again, I’m not saying this is proper behavior, I’m just wondering if it’s harassment.

I swear, Michael Scott made the same speech in the episode of “The Office” that dealt with sexual harassment. First of all, all of this “Where’s the line?” shit has been covered by every HR department in every company everywhere. Sure, every company’s lines are different and every company enforces a little differently, and maybe you think the rules at your own company are excessively draconian or excessively permissive, but either way, it’s been rhetorically covered. Since, like, 1992. I swear to God, we sat through a sexual harassment seminar when we were in middle school. You know, the last age where it was funny to pretend flirting and harassment are the same thing?

I know there are complicated questions arising from romantic relationships in the workplace, but David Brooks is acting like he’s never heard of the role power differentials play in these discussion. “Is any overture between people at the same firm harassment on its face?” Of course not! Overtures between equals made in a respectful, non-demeaning way that don’t create an uncomfortable environment are not harassment. Your company might discourage them anyway, because they don’t want to get into these kinds of arguments, but that’s a separate issue.

And don’t pretend you don’t know what comments create an uncomfortable environment. Usually, the people making such comments are trying to create an uncomfortable environment. Usually the people making demeaning comments mean to demean. Maybe they don’t really think about how it will affect the demeaned person, because they don’t really consider him/her a person, or they think they’re being cute, but very few people actually respect others and are trying to be nice and flub themselves into sexual harassment.

I just read an interesting article on how this pertains to acquaintance rape. The article posits that, in fact, there are men out there who rape in settings we think of as “acquaintance rape” settings – parties, dates, etc., who are not ordinary guys who do a bad thing but are actively seeking situations in which the girls are drunk, the girls are flirty, the girls have a history of psychological whatever (like, who doesn’t?), and in which they KNOW that ordinary guys are going to get behind them because they’re going to use the “She was drunk/flirty/crazy” stuff to create a story in which this kind of accusation could happen to ANY guy! So all those ANY guys say, “Oh, yeah, I’ve had sex with a drunk girl; I’ve had sex with a girl who was all flirty and coming on to me, I’ve had sex with a girl who was on psych meds! She could totally accuse me of rape! And I’m just a nice, ordinary, non-rapey guy!” Whereas, argues the article, actual nice ordinary guys can tell when a woman is into it and don’t want to have sex with a woman who’s not. I’m not 100% behind the article. I think sex and rape are more complicated than that, and while I’m willing to believe a lot of acquaintance rape is committed by these predator-types who commit the acts specifically in settings where they’re not going to get prosecuted or maybe even accused, I bet there’s also some ordinary guys who do bad things, maybe because they’re in a group of guys doing bad things, maybe because they care theoretically if the woman’s into it but right now they’re willing to go with anything that sounds like a non-no, or any number of complicated situations which will take this post totally off the rails if I try to go into them now.

But that aside, I can see how this model works with sexual harassment, too. There are people (and I know a small portion of them are women) who want to harass, who want to demean, who want to power trip in an office. And they’ll get away with it because they’ll do it in settings where they can be all, “I was just flirting! Just because you don’t like me doesn’t mean I was harassing you! Come on, baby, can’t you take a joke?” and the other people in that setting will go, “Yeah, I flirt at the office sometimes! I make jokes! An accusation could totally happen to me!” So they back the harasser instead of the victim of harassment. Again, I don’t think that’s always the case. But I think it’s a possible factor. And the factor is made stronger when guys like David Brooks back it up in their columns on the web pages of the New York Times.

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