The Culture of Enabling and the Bystander Effect

As we have recently seen in our political charade how one corrupt politician has covered for another crony, we must ask ourselves why this happens. This raises the issue of enabling, and of not speaking up when we see injustice or unethical behavior.

Politically, there is a lot at stake for those who choose to whistleblow. Elected officials may lose constituent support and not be reelected. Appointed individuals may be asked to resign or simply dismissed. Individuals in either category may be aware of the wrongdoings, (innocent) bystanders, but may simply not speak up for whatever reason, assuming that others will do so or that justice will be served, that somehow correct activity will be spotted and punished. In our political situation, we can blame the Republicans for having put Trump up as a candidate in the first place. That was origin of the chain of disastrous events that have been going on in Washington for the past few years.

Also plaguing American (and even global) society in recent times is the whole #MeToo movement, which has taken place on both high level (think Harvey Weinstein or Charlie Rose) as well as ordinary day-to-day level interactions between men and women. One of the perpetrators cited in the Charlie Rose case was his Executive Producer, Yvette Vega, who knew of Rose’s lewd behavior, but told Rose’s targets that that was the way he was.

So that raises another interesting point–women are sometimes complicit in men’s bad behavior. Women perpetuate negative cycles, as can be seen in many patriarchal cultures where mothers may blame their daughters for being raped or harassed or for the way men treat them badly. This was a topic that a professor had raised in graduate school in an international education class, and it is sadly true through not only the developing world, but also in the industrialized West.

Ordinary good people are sometimes complicit in enabling bad behavior. I recently experienced a situation in which I was completely blindsided by the leader of a group despite having done nothing wrong. And yet others in the group did not speak up for me. The bystanders allowed the group leader to have too much power.

What do we do, then, if we are in such a position where we see bad behavior, and it could potentially have negative consequences for us if we report it? Or if we like the person who has been behaving badly toward others, for they have not behaved badly toward us and have been our supporters, mentors, advocates?

These are not easy questions to answer, but I think we have to speak up as much as possible. Is it not more noble to do the right thing even if we have to face the consequences? Or, if we are not able to take action, because of direct to ourselves or even our livelihood, we need to be very aware of that and admit our hypocrisy in the situation in which we are engaged. This has to be a case-by-case basis, and sometimes there are overt situations which require speaking up and even taking legal action if necessary, but there other situations which may require more subtle action.

At the bottom of this discussion is the issue of character. We need to be educating students about the importance of good character, and our educational institutions, even higher education ones, need to place an emphasis on this. My alma mater, Stanford University, seems to be busy admitting the future twentysomething billionaire entrepreneurs who often show moral depravity and even sociopathic tendencies–think Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos. Granted, 99% of the students are not this extreme and we have to take into account developmental stages of young people.

But our society really needs to think more about valuing ethics over fame, power, and money. Why don’t we make America ethical again?!

The Silver Lining to the #MeToo Movement

Would that it did not happen. Would that millions – no billions – of women did not face some sort of sexual harassment or discrimination or molesting on a daily basis around the world. If only it did not involve power, and women feeling threatened for their jobs or their lives. But unfortunately, this has been a part of women’s lives probably since the beginning of time, and we are in a period where so much of this sexual harassment has come to the forefront, starting with the Harvey Weinstein scandal. It was quite disturbing to see how many of my friends had posted “MeToo” on their Facebook pages, friends from all around the world. So the scale of this problem is immense and acute. But as with any bad or traumatic situation, is there something positive that can come of it? I think so. Here are some thoughts on the silver lining to the #MeToo movement and the spate of cases of sexual harassment that we have been hearing about so much lately.

-It cuts across class and all social differences. Everyone from multimillionaire Gwyneth Paltrow to a waitress at Denny’s can relate. It affects athletes (as we have seen in the Larry Nassar cases), young journalists (think Charlie Rose), seasoned professionals, and women of all colors. Therefore, we see the universality of the issue.

-It normalizes the experience of sexual harassment. Notice that I did not say it normalizes sexual harassment. What this means is that women do not need to feel alone in what they have suffered. One of the most difficult things for any victim of an abusive situation is feeling alone and isolated. Certainly nothing can take away our individual sufferings. But there is some healing that comes when we see we are not alone.

-It brings feminism back to its core values of gender equality and non-discrimination of women. In the recent decades, I feel that feminism has often gotten ridiculous, focusing on dissecting words (i.e. herstory instead of history, which if you know its Latin roots has nothing to do with gender), radical feminism, academic feminism, an obsession with sexuality and sex practices, and everything that is extreme, esoteric, and individualistic. Now that we see the widespread phenomenon of sexual harassment, we have to step back and ask ourselves questions about relations between men and women, and how women are treated as a whole in a society. It makes feminism accessible to everyone, not just someone who’s white and upper middle-class in an Ivy League school, or someone funky and pierced and tattooed in San Francisco. Therefore,

-It has a collective impact and makes institutions rethink policies. As above, since feminism in the recent decades focused so much on individualism, we are looking at women’s issues as a whole now and what kinds of programs and policies and rules will benefit the majority of women, and hopefully all women.

-It gets men involved with the discussion. I will say that there are and can be indeed gray areas in terms of male behavior toward women, and a range of behaviors that women will accept. (For example, some women may feel flattered when men comment on their body, but it can depend on whom, and some women may feel extremely harassed by such behavior.) However, men need to be aware of their own actions and behavior, the possibility that they will be misread, informed about respecting healthy boundaries and limits, and calling out other men who do not respect women and abuse their power. Many men are simply not aware of the power that they hold, that they are abusing it, or simply not aware of how women may feel inferior in certain situations. We cannot have a discussion about women without men. This was the great fault of radical feminism, not including men. Not all men are abusers or harassers. Many men are allies and supporters, friends and lovers.

-It has an impact on men who behave badly. They are getting forced from their jobs, positions of power, and most importantly, urged to seek treatment. While we have to be careful not to conduct a witch hunt and immediately oust men without hearing the full story and their side of the story (history is rife with examples of those accused being put to death or punishment very hastily), there are countless cases of multiple women coming forth with evidence against men, or even individual women who have proof. Women need to be believed when they come forward with a report of harassment. Institutions need to trust in them, rather than covering up, as Michigan State so sickeningly did with Larry Nassar. Consider the Stanford rapist case with Brock Turner and Judge Aaron Persky. After his lenient sentencing of the rapist, people protested and eventually voters in California recalled the judge. This was a successful move by the people and the law. We mustn’t have knee-jerk reactions to things. But we have to understand cyclical behavior in men, the abuse of power, and be aware of the existence of predators.

-Women do not have to feel guilty for their sexuality and sensuality. A woman has a right to be beautiful in whatever way she sees fit, be it high hemlines or a hijab. We need to take the onus off of women for the predatory behavior of men. This is not to say women should not be wise; I am still an advocate of young college women not getting drunk and going off with men at parties or otherwise, and believe in personal responsibility. There is some truth to what Camille Paglia has long said. But a woman should not feel that she does not have the right to express herself just because some creepy man will make comments or make her uncomfortable. Female sexuality holds tremendous power, and that is a universal truth. Men should not punish women or make them and feel comfortable for that power.