Ashley Judd feared us also. Sometimes the punishers are we.

October 19, 2017 Ian White Maher 4 comments

I might have missed it—the news cycle is so chaotic these days—so, I might have missed it, but I haven’t seen a second Hollywood producer called out for predatory behavior yet. Do we really believe that Weinstein is the only one? If the answer is no, then why isn’t this moment more dynamic? Why aren’t more predators being named?

Certainly, no one is surprised that Harvey Weinstein is capable of the behavior he has been accused of and (sort-of) admitted to. The man has long been characterized as a bully and abusive; a characterization he even cultivated as Hollywood’s Machiavelli believing it better to be feared than loved. So wrapping our heads around the idea that his bullying includes sexual predation and coercion is not really that difficult.

Little over a week ago, Harvey Weinstein became the second person in the history of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences to have his membership revoked. For a brief moment enough people lost their fear and publicly named Weinstein as a predator. The perfect storm collapsed on his head and he is out. Other predators are, no doubt, concerned with what might happen to them, but should they be? Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, and Roman Polanski remain members in good standing with the Academy. And are we really ready to call out Kevin Spacey?

For many of us the story of why Weinstein wasn’t held accountable for his behavior sooner—his victims feared repercussions—strikes us as entirely plausible. Not only because of the gossip we hear about the inner workings of Hollywood, but also because, and perhaps more importantly, many of us have failed to speak up at one time or another in our own lives out of fear of reprisals. We can identify with the situations his victims were in, if, perhaps, on a less intense level.

We believe these stories because we have seen similar examples in our own lives. And we are drawn to them not only because we like to see a powerful predator fall but also because, on some level, the justice found in this moment is a stand in for the justice that is not quite attainable in our own situations.

But there is a shadow side as well.

It is the nature of the reprisal that I find so curious. Why did Ashley Judd not speak out sooner? Our quick answer is that she was afraid Weinstein would end her career, but this is too facile. She feared us just as much, if only in a different way.

That is “we” are also the same reason we do not speak out. The phrase “no one will believe me if I say something” doesn’t just indicate the fear of reprisal from the predatory boss or even that we will be forced to carry the banner for justice alone, but also that we will be undermined by the rest of the “we.”

Stories of abuse in show business are not new. The seemingly fearless punk rocker Johnny Rotten admits to being unable to talk about serial pedophile Jimmy Savile (this comment was cut from the final BBC interview) in 1978, at the height of his fame and rebelliousness. A 2005 red carpet interview with Courtney Love recently surfaced where she gave sound advice to young starlets. This week she claims to have been banned by the CAA for this comment. And this video of Corey Haim and Corey Feldman is a heartbreaker to watch.

But perhaps the most interesting example, for me anyway, is Sinead O’Connor. Do you remember when Sinead tore up a photo of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live? People were shocked and angry and lashed out at her. But do you remember why she was protesting the Catholic Church and the Pope in particular?

Child sex abuse.

The rape of young children was rampant under the leadership of Pope John Paul II who protected the abusers and those who helped with the cover up. Sinead tore up the photo in 1992. It took the Boston Globe ten more years before they started their now famous investigative reporting which brought the church as an institution under a microscope and forced people to admit the abuse was systemic and not just isolated incidents.

Reaction from the Catholic Church is irrelevant—I mean, who cares about the opinions of the defenders of child rape—more interesting is the reaction of the people. Less than two weeks after her SNL appearance Sinead was booed off the stage of a Bob Dylan tribute concert. (The irony of being booed at a Bob Dylan concert for highlighting injustice…I mean.) And the week following her protest Joe Pesci appeared on SNL, gave a shout out to Columbus, had the photo pasted back together, and then advocated she be beaten up. All to the cheers of the “we.” And, as Pesci said, case closed.

And children were abused in the churches for another 10 years.

Except it wasn’t exactly case closed because there was this issue of Sinead’s career to deal with. I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got charted at number 1 around the world, was nominated for four Grammys and sold millions of copies. Her next album, appropriately titled Am I Not Your Girl and explored issues of abuse, peaked at 27. The following one at 36, then 55, then 139, and then off the charts altogether. Perhaps we just weren’t into her new music. This does happen. But she never lived down the SNL incident and her career suffered for it. And who were the people who punished Sinead? Not the church. The punishers were us. And maybe we are still punishing her.

It is obvious that the powerful will try to punish those who speak out against their exploitation. What is more frightening, however, is that the “we” will support the powerful in shutting down the exploited person. There is a fate worse than losing one’s career and sliding into obscurity: it is being shamed and cast out by the people. You become not just exploited but also demonized.

When we ask ourselves why does this evil still exist, it is not enough to point the finger and say the boss would punish the victims. We must also reconcile ourselves to the fact that the bosses would not have the power to punish if we supported the victims when they do speak out. For every Harvey Weinstein there are many more Barbara Walters’, Joe Pesci’s, and regular people, like you and me, who are ready to shut victims down on behalf of the predators.

Would Ashley Judd have spoken up if she knew people would support her? Maybe. But the truth is, while she may have feared Harvey Weinstein, she also feared us.

Why aren’t more Hollywood predators being named in this watershed moment when every day a new actress comes forward with her Weinstein story? Why are Terry Crews and Molly Ringwald still not naming names even as they write powerful testimonies?

Do they fear reprisals from studio bosses? Sure. Do they also fear that if they try to do the right thing we will Joe Pesci them? They would be stupid not to. Predators must be weeded out, but to think that somehow the “we” is not responsible just lets us off the hook.

I recently heard a Zen story which goes:
A student asked an old master, “In this world of coming and going, how can we be free and unfettered?” The master immediately retorted, “Who has ever put you in chains?”

Yes, who?

4 Comments on “Ashley Judd feared us also. Sometimes the punishers are we.

  1. My daughter and I were discussing this. Her fear was not that she wouldn’t be believed, but that she would be believed and no one would care.

    1. Which, for me, is the interesting part of the conversation. That somehow we share some of the responsibility for the fear that these women (and sometimes men) feel when it comes to speaking out.

  2. It is good that women ( and some men) are joining the chorus of ME too. It certainly makes it safer to say so. But the reality is that most of us who experienced sexual harassement do so alone with no witnesses. I experienced it several times when I interviewed for a job and with my first boss. Every time I was alone. Every time it was about power. The men knew they weren’t going to be held accountable. I was fresh out of college and my boss was the largest trust account at the bank. Who was going to listen to me? When I told the HR rep in my exit interview what happened, she said nothing. Nothing was done. So yes, no one cared. I was strong enough to stand up to it but no one cared. Powerful people intimidate and know they can get away with it. It pervades every industry. These rich & powerful men hire lawyers to write contracts to keep people quiet. Why is a contract more correct than the injustice done in a court of law? Victims have always had an uphill battle. Perhaps finally, there is some momentum for true change thanks to Metoo.

    1. “Who was going to listen to me? When I told the HR rep in my exit interview what happened, she said nothing. Nothing was done. So yes, no one cared. I was strong enough to stand up to it but no one cared.”
      It is this dimension of the story that interests me the most. We know the powerful will try to get away with exploitation, but what is it about humanity/human behavior that allows us to not do anything when we know something is wrong? For me some of this comes down to questions of evil…why does evil exist/happen. Some people claim humans are inherently sinners. I can understand where they get that perspective. Powerful people exploit and people stand by and watch it happen. How am I to believe that people are not inherently sinful when I know this behavior happens, when I know people watch exploitation happen and do nothing? How am I to defend my belief in human goodness in the face of this evidence? This is the question your experience with the HR person raises, to me anyway.

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