This essay is part of a larger conversation about harassment. We’ve invited different voices to join this and work towards unpacking the problem and finding solutions. You can find the rest of the essays on this index page).
This has been a hell of a year for gender relations, huh? The #MeToo movement started with Harvey Weinstein and swept through Hollywood, then government, and now it’s everywhere. For me, as for many of us, it’s unfolding closer than we ever expected. People we know and often really like are being accused of inappropriate behavior, and we have to figure out where to go from here.
There are a lot of options on the table, ranging from “just assume the accusers are lying and carry on,” which is easy and comfortable but morally indefensible, all the way to “cut ties and never speak to the accused again,” which is certainly standing by your ideals, but ultimately a lonely path, since none of us is entirely virtuous all of the time.
Finding our way through these emerging social norms is complex, and agonizing, because we all want to do the right thing, but the right thing is neither clear nor obvious. Supporting and believing a victim we may not even know feels unfair to an accused friend—but not doing so is harmful to someone who is already suffering. We need to put aside our reflexive loyalty. It is no longer a helpful tool, now that we know how skilled abusers can be at showing different faces to different people.
We certainly need to decide what to do about our problematic friends and how to treat them going forward. But how? One of the reasons a lot of us are feeling lost and unsure about this is because we have no script to follow.
Let’s unpack this a bit. A lot of our daily interactions are basically pre-scripted. This is most clear when you learn a new language—these classes provide you with basic scripts for morning greetings, calling for an appointment, etc. Once you reach a more advanced level of fluency, the scripts become more complex: a winning athlete being interviewed after a big game, or telling a doctor what hurts, or conducting a job interview.
We also have culturally-accepted scripts that we perform for situations like getting engaged or breaking up. These conversations aren’t on rails, exactly, but once the conversation starts, there are a limited number of possible outcomes based on what each person is trying to achieve and which lines they use.
‘Script’ is perhaps a misleading word—you could read it more accurately as something more like a decision tree in a video game. When someone says “Hi, how are ya,” everybody knows that “Hi,” and “Good!” and a handshake are all acceptable next lines, and they move you both smoothly through the interaction.
We have similar acceptable and required behaviors for absolutely everything. How you play with a baby. How you navigate a car in traffic. How you put together a meal. What you say, if anything, when someone sneezes. This is, of course, heavily mediated by culture and social contract, because every one of these things can be entirely different in another culture, or even another subculture.
There are lots of other situations we don’t have specific scripts for, too, of course. We are not purely deterministic beings, bouncing our way down the pachinko game of life. But if someone walks in front of our car wearing a grapes costume and stands on their head in the middle of the intersection, we’re going to be somewhat at a loss for how to react.
Upon closer inspection, a lot of the behaviors we find creepy or upsetting or infuriating in daily life are, basically, the times when somebody goes really, really off-script from what we expected them to do. When we don’t have a script, often our stress responses kick in: fight, flight, freeze. Once we recover from the shock of discovering that we have no acceptable range of next actions in our dialogue tree—because it’s input we never, never expected to receive—we have to work harder and rely on higher-order logic to try to puzzle through a response. Do we leave? Call the police? Ignore the behavior?
Many of us, it turns out, will simply carry on with the script as though the offending event didn’t happen at all. That’s a big problem right now, in the context of #MeToo.
Clearly when a friend of yours is accused of inappropriate behavior, the right answer isn’t to just ignore the whole ugly mess. But higher-order logic isn’t always quite up to the job, either. In the case of #MeToo, our logical brains want far more information than we typically get.
This is all we know: A bad thing has happened, and we are obligated to believe the bad thing.
Much of the time, we have no information on the bad thing, really, beyond that it exists, and it was bad, and it involved our friend. To make this even more complicated, our emerging etiquette says that we cannot ask for specifics; simply believe, and go from there, because demanding more information (or worse, proof) is a second victimization of someone who has already endured an unspecified bad thing.
Meanwhile, we’re being expected to explicitly not trust our own pre-existing opinions and loyalty to a given person, and not to trust their account of events, if they even provide one. The scripts we thought we knew have failed us.
From a cishet man’s point of view, there’s a similar problem, though from a different angle: the scripts he has relied upon for obtaining romantic company have, to his thinking, suddenly been pronounced wrong and bad, and he’s confronted with paralysis in the face of scriptlessness. Does this mean he should simply never speak to a woman, never ask someone out? Is sex itself forever off the table? No, of course not. But he needs new scripts for behavior. Pablo Defendini will be discussing this more deeply next month.
It’s incredibly difficult to come up with a script starting from scratch, without even comparable models to draw from. Generally, when a friend or acquaintance has been accused of harassment, our higher-order logic really, really doesn’t have enough context to feel comfortable drawing any conclusions. Even beyond “is it true,” higher-order logic has so, so many questions that it wants to be answered. For example, we want to know HOW BAD was the bad thing? Was it sorta-bad, medium-bad, or HELLA BAD? Are we talking about a crude joke, or are we talking about Bill Cosby behavior, or something in the vast and unmapped middle ground. There is a spectrum for misogynistic and abusive behaviors that we lack adequate language to convey without getting into sordid or invasive specifics.
Even if you know those specifics, what does that mean about long-term consequences? What is fair, moral, and just for the victim? How to treat your friend? Do you talk about it, or avoid the subject? Commit to vigilantly policing their behavior going forward and guiding them toward being a better human being? Should you just never talk to them again, block and unfriend, delete contacts, etc.? Should you be civil in a professional setting, or refuse to work with them from now on? Should you pretend you’ve never even met? Do you forgive them but keep it on the downlow while everything cools down? And… for how long? Does this mean the person should NEVER WORK IN THIS TOWN AGAIN, or for a period of weeks, or years, or…?
When we look at each other in disquiet and we ask ourselves, “Where is all of this going?” this is why. It’s not that any of us is trying to defend the status quo or want sexual harassment to continue forever. We don’t! Of course not. It’s just that we’ve suddenly found ourselves in very unfamiliar terrain, and we desperately need a map. All we have is fight, flight, freeze.
We need to figure all of this stuff out. Collectively and individually, we need to write a whopping new batch of scripts, trying out all kinds of different norms and approaches. We’re going to get it wrong sometimes—maybe a lot of the time, at first. But sometimes we’re going to handle it brilliantly, and each time we’ll get a little closer to knowing the right way to go forward: what to ask, what to say, what to do. It’s going to be messy. It may even be painful. But this is fundamentally the work of building a better, healthier, fairer society, and it’s worth our very best effort.