Just minutes before the start of President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address, Hillary Clinton dumped a mea culpa onto her Facebook page, explaining why, a decade earlier, she hadn’t fired a campaign staffer accused of sexual harassment.
In the same week, former PBS talk-show host Tavis Smiley, who was fired for allegations of improper conduct, made an appearance at George Washington University as part of a five-city road show to discuss workplace harassment. And Friday, Wayne Pacelle, the CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, resigned his position, despite his governing board’s decision a day earlier to keep him amid allegations of sexual harassment.
If these somewhat disparate events reveal anything, it’s that new pressures and counterforces are beginning to take shape as the #MeToo movement continues its march around the globe.
Clearly, Clinton clearly felt pressured to revise history and explain a decision that seems to have been made in good faith; Smiley, rather than slink away into the darkness, has decided to throw down in the public square and have his say; and Pacelle, who briefly enjoyed the benefit of the doubt from the majority of his board, proved yet again that there is power in numbers.
I confess to having hoped the charges against Pacelle weren’t true. Having known him through my son, who worked at the Humane Society until last April, I was relieved by the board’s decision. An outside law firm had conducted a monthlong investigation into the allegations and, based on the findings, the board voted in favor of Pacelle staying. Even though many were disappointed, including the three initial accusers — and seven board members who immediately resigned — it seemed to me that justice had been better served by a fair process and the “jury’s” verdict than through the usual shoot-first-ask-questions-later course of events.
His resignation may be viewed as correct, though not necessarily for the organization he built or the animals it has served thanks to Pacelle’s stewardship, advocacy and legendary work ethic. No person is all one thing, good or bad, and Pacelle is no exception.
My admiration for the many women across industries who have found the courage to come forward the past few months can’t be overstated. Nevertheless, I remain uncomfortable with aspects of the me-too methodology, wherein accusation equals indictment, public shaming is tantamount to conviction, and sentencing usually means ruin.
Smiley, for one, is having none of it. He may or may not be guilty. I have no idea, but his decision to take his case public suggests that a shift is underway from taking-it-like-a-man to fighting-like-a-girl. In a good way. Smiley has denied all allegations and claims he doesn’t know who his accusers are or of what, specifically, he has been accused. PBS, which distributed Smiley’s talk show, reportedly found a pattern of affairs with multiple subordinates, some of whom reported feeling that sex with the boss was essential to job security.
At George Washington University, Smiley drew only a few dozen to the auditorium where he and three female experts discussed topics from gender and race to Hollywood and the media. If his small turnout here is any indication, it may be a while before dissenting men’s voices are welcome to the conversation. But a backlash has always been inevitable, especially as more people grow increasingly concerned about a media-driven system of accusation without limitations or process.
In her sort-of apology, Clinton followed a familiar script, saying she would do things differently now than then. Wouldn’t we all? Yet, for my palate, the way she handled the case during her campaign in 2008 seems a fair and appropriate way to handle things even now, except in the most egregious cases or when allegations rise to the level of criminality.
When she became aware of complaints against her faith adviser, Burns Strider, she demoted him, docked his pay, physically moved him elsewhere, blocked his email access to his accuser, and ordered counseling. Her rationale was that, as a believer in second chances, termination was overly punitive. That Strider never sought counseling and continued his behavior in another job, at most, suggests a failure of oversight.
These days, when anyone can be accused of anything, our ipso facto presumption of guilt ought to cause the ghosts of Salem to rise up in protest. Either we respect process and the rules of law and order, or we risk becoming a land of “high-tech lynch mobs,” to borrow a phrase, where anyone’s turn could be next, guilty or not.
Kathleen Parker is a columnist for The Washington Post. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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