To Stop Sexual Misconduct, We Must Put An End to “Bros Before Hoes”
by Benjamin Studebaker
I’ve been thinking about the Harvey Weinstein sex scandal for a while. It just keeps getting worse. Apparently former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak helped Weinstein cover his tracks by putting him in touch with ex-Mossad agents. Those agents manipulated, intimidated, and lied to Weinstein’s victims in a bid to shut them up or discredit them. In the meantime, more famous people are facing multiple accusations. Some of them are people I liked–I enjoyed Kevin Spacey. I enjoyed Louis CK. But when there’s this much smoke, there’s fire.
I haven’t written on this yet, because it’s so hard to deal with politically. We can’t just lower the standards of evidence for these cases. We can’t presume guilt in the absence of evidence. And yet, when it comes to most forms of sexual misconduct, there can never be enough physical evidence for a conviction. We just have the things that people say. When lots of people are saying the same things, we can be pretty sure something bad happened. But it’s not enough to put people in prison. Usually when I write about a social issue, I have some positive proposal. It feels wasteful to write when I don’t. But today I finally had a thought I think is worth sharing. Here goes.
Power doesn’t corrupt–but it reveals. You never know how you’re going to act with power until you have it, because power gives you choices you didn’t have before. One of the cool things I’ve discovered through teaching at Cambridge is that I’m not a bad person. When I have real power it turns out I mostly use it to do the best I can for the people for whom I’m responsible. I don’t make up rationalisations for why it’s okay for me to prioritise myself over my students. This was a pleasant surprise for me–I thought I might be more of a jerk than I turned out to be.
But sometimes people don’t respond well to power. People like Kevin and Louie had the power to help the people around them. But they aren’t the kind of people who help when they can. Instead, they take. When we find this out about someone–especially someone we like–it’s sad, and more than a little disappointing.
The worst thing is that it’s not just a matter of character–Kevin and Louie didn’t choose to be the kind of people who respond to power in this way. Our society manufactures bad people everyday. They come off the assembly line. They don’t all exploit in the kind of dramatic way that makes the newspaper. There are academics who make fun of their students because they can. There are academics who don’t give extensions when students need them. I hear stories. People rationalise it. “Oh, I’m being tough.” “I’m teaching responsibility.” Nonsense. These are just little exploitations, the ones that are small enough that we let them go. And because we let them go, they spread. Some graduate student hears some veteran academic talk about how the students are too entitled and decides it’s okay to rough them up a bit. Thirty years later that person is telling the same story to the next generation. The same thing happens with sexual misconduct. Somewhere along the way, Kevin and Louie saw other people–people they liked and respected–treat this stuff like it was okay, and that made them feel it was okay for them, too. Once upon a time they were young and impressionable, and the strong made the wrong impressions on them. Now that they’re strong, they pass it along.
Social norms get momentum. They’re hard to stop once they get going. The more bad people we make, the more bad people we tend to make. It gets harder and harder to stop it. I don’t believe in blaming and shaming individuals, but we have to repudiate this behaviour. It’s not okay. And that means even when it’s someone we like, we have to repudiate it to break the cycle, so that impressionable people don’t see it and think it’s okay. We can’t be quiet, especially when we have power and we’re in a position to make impressions.
Aziz Ansari is Louie’s friend.
When Aziz got asked about Louie, he refused to say anything. That’s not a neutral move. Aziz used his power to protect his friend. That, unfortunately, is the kind of person Aziz is. It’s not his fault he’s that way–someone at some point gave him the impression that loyalty was more important. Maybe he heard somebody say “bros before hoes” a few too many times.
Politics can’t regulate sexual misconduct away. Without policy, it has to be people like Aziz. The friends. The people who know. If we have to wait for victims to speak up, we’re never going to get ahead of this. We have to start ratting on each other. Gals before pals. Guys before ties.
Last year, LA Lakers point guard D’Angelo Russell got in trouble.
The other players on the Lakers shunned him. But Nick was using the power that his charisma and good looks give him to do something exploitative–he took advantage of Iggy’s trust. We need more D’Angelos and fewer Azizes. You know what’s really sad? By the end of it, they broke him. Desperate for the approval of his veteran teammates, D’Angelo apologized in public. It wasn’t enough. President of Basketball Operations Magic Johnson decided to trade D’Angelo to the Nets. The Nets! They’re terrible.
Cheating on your girlfriend isn’t as bad as sexual misconduct. But when this happened, nobody stuck up for D’Angelo. Most people reflexively assumed loyalty was the most important thing at stake here. We have to stop making that assumption. When in doubt, we have to put exploitation first.
The state isn’t going to make us do it. But it’s something we need to do, especially those of us with power, those of us who make impressions on the impressionable. We can’t protect exploitation, even when we love the exploiter–especially when we love the exploiter.