We miss the true meaning of this difficult moment if we think that this “problem” is only about men in high places preying on vulnerable younger women and men - who are themselves trying to make it in the celebrity worlds of film, comedy, sports, the media and politics. This is not just about Hollywood or Washington. Tragically, this is about every kind of workplace and relationship. All of us have a role in this unfolding narrative.
Among our readers are many who have experienced sexual harassment and assault. You have lived with these experiences and gone on with your lives as best you could. There are also some who have participated, in one way or another, in the culture of harassment and assault. Indeed, we are ALL implicated in, and socialized by, this “smog” of sexual misbehavior and abuse. We are not just spectators watching from the stands as the mighty fight and fall. Each day we wake, think and act in ways that recreate the culture that supports this system. To break this cycle, we must change ourselves, our outlook, our conversations and relationships, and our behaviors.
Here is one way we can begin to wake up from this society-wide nightmare:
First, those of us who have a story to tell - those who have been touched, groped, harassed, hounded out of a job, silenced in a public conversation, or sexually assaulted - it is time to tell these stories to the people in our lives who care about us. As we have seen this past month, the stories are shocking - beyond normal belief for many of us - yet true. And, the stories are powerful. Hearing these stories from friends and loved ones can transform those who care about us into allies supporting change in the culture. See our guidelines on how to do this safely.
If you have been harassed or assaulted (or both) and don’t tell your stories you remain hidden and alone, whispering your experiences in the underground network of those with similar stories to tell. We know from recent history that telling these stories more widely is a major way to change the status quo. In 1978 Harvey Milk, the first gay person elected to public office, began to call on closeted LGBTQ individuals to come out to their families, friends, neighbors and colleagues. The sea change we have witnessed since then in the support for LGBTQ rights is a direct result of the stories that created a world of straight allies.
Second, those of us who do not identify as victims of sexual harassment still have an important job to do - listen and reflect. Listen to those who tell their story and reflect on where you were (or would have been) in the story they tell. What did you do? What would you do? What have you said, what looks or leers have crossed your face, what behaviors have you engaged in? How might we have been complicit? Our guidelines apply to telling these stories too.
Third, some were “just” bystanders, watching and doing nothing while someone else harmed another human being. Others were in denial about abuse we now know was real. Perhaps, we were so oblivious, wrapped up in our own concerns, that we truly didn’t see or hear what was happening to others. There are ways we can change these behaviors as well. See the link to the post from the Southern Poverty Law Center on how to fight hate on our Do More resource page.
Finally, if you have always been an ally, share the stories of who and what helped you become that person. We can all be inspired by what is possible.
As we tell and listen to these stories we are changing the expectations and understanding of our own family and community. We are changing and opening up the culture. It is an ongoing process that also supports and amplifies other people's stories - the stories of racism, homophobia and other forms of oppression. Use these stories to transform yourself and others and take your transformation out into the world.
Over the Thanksgiving holiday open your heart, your voice and your ears to these important stories - your stories and those of your companions. Speak personally about the issues of power, intimidation, coercion and gender found in the news of the day. Find those who will listen well to your story.
This is a moment for courage and wisdom. Courage to speak the unspoken. Wisdom to choose the right time, the right place and the right listeners.
And when you are not speaking, listen with an open heart and an open mind letting the words, feelings and meaning sink in and change us. We can trust ourselves to do this work well.
Happy Thanksgiving one and all.