We Actually Do Need To Talk About Witch Hunts
You only need half a kitten for this one, I promise!
I've got a few dudes on a list of people I hope get blackballed from media work or worse. I'm not bleeding from my heart for sexual harassers. This isn't about whether we should be nicer to the poor gross dudes. This is about how we as a society navigate public wrongdoing generally.
"Don't become the story" is basically the first law of journalism for most people; I don't know many people in media who have had it happen. I'm not talking a couple news hits about their new jobs or gossip items like JOE AND MIKA ARE TOTALLY FUCKING. I'm talking about being a story, where millions of strangers debate your relative worth as a human being and whether society should shun you.
I was poor, and I wrote about it, and then for some godforsaken reason people decided that that was itself newsworthy, and then people decided that I was secretly wealthy, and then I went through hell. Here are some of the highlights, for context, and then we're going to talk about how we do this justice thing!
That's the Huffington Post. I'm "the woman." (NO PRESSURE, LINDA!) It went up Thanksgiving weekend 2013. It stayed on the front page for the entire holiday. After that, I was officially Poverty Chick. But this is the Internet and we cannot have nice things, so:
Here's a NYT piece that was so poorly written my publisher actually had a chat with me about whether I should consider suing the New York Times. That is not something that anyone would typically advise an emerging writer on their first book to do.
That all annoyed The Nation enough that they published my welfare records online. No really, they're still live too, you can go and look at them! Let me tell you, it was not at all humiliating to have to hand over all my records to a reporter to publish! Neither was the time that Erik Wemple showed up at my house to take pictures of my busted furniture! Or basically anything the Daily Mail wrote about me!
So here's why I want to talk about media swarms and public pillories: I've lived through one, and they break you. I have spent years trying to articulate what happens when you are forced to watch the world decide whether you personally get to be a member of society anymore or not, knowing that neither you nor factual reality have anything to do with the conversation but that your entire future depends on its outcome.
I bring this up because we're about to see a lot of men talking about what it was like to be publicly accused of misconduct. They're going to tell you about the thousands or tens of thousands or millions of abusive emails and tweets, about what it's like to get credible threats from strangers and not know if they're really going to come kill your kids. They're going to try to explain the paralyzing fear that comes when you know that thousands of keyboard warriors are combing through your every comment on every website in the history of your life, calling your old friends to see if you were ever a dick, calling your exes and asking about your messy breakups. Nobody doesn't have a few moments they're ashamed of, but most people don't spend months dreading their shame's debut as a feature in the Washington Post.
They will tell you about the inevitable existential crises and mental breakdowns. They'll tell you that they never had panic attacks before but now they can't leave the house without shaking. They will try to describe what it's like to be in such sheer animal panic that it's impossible to tell whether your skin is actually being flayed off of you or whether you're merely imagining it. They'll talk about weeks in which they neither ate nor slept, dropping whole inches off their waists in a matter of days.
They might tell you about the people who came and spit in their face the first time they got their shit together enough to leave the house, or the people at the grocery store who told their children that their parents are abusive liars and they'll grow up the same if they're not careful. There's a lot of things like that that happen, when half the world has been given permission to use you in their Two Minutes' Hate.
There is no such thing in my world anymore as a fact, or a true thing. There is fleeting beauty, and fleeting pain, and Right and Wrong. I live in today, this minute, because this minute is the only thing I can vouch for. Later might be another forced reincarnation and public torture.
I have a tattoo on my forearm. It's to remind me: A snowflake never thinks itself responsible for the avalanche. That way if it ever happens again I'll remember that most journalists are underpaid and overworked and none of them actually mean to destroy my future, they're just building theirs at my expense. I'll remember that individual members of the furious violent mob don't understand what they're doing here, as they utterly lack the will or more charitably the ability to consider their own actions in a broader societal context.
So we will shortly hear from men who have just been through something similar to what I went through. Some of them -- the ones who'd never really been in the spotlight -- will be broken, shattered husks of the people they were a few weeks previous. We will be tempted to say fuck the goddamned pervert anyway.
We should think about the fact that there's a range of misbehavior, from the merely improper to the fully horrific, and that the same punishment will not be suitable for every guy we're about to hear is skeevy. Al Franken made some bad jokes and crossed lines, probably without intending to. John Conyers had to settle lawsuits because he aggressively harassed women. Roy Moore molested or tried to molest minor children.
Those are not all the same level of bad. Even if we could, we probably shouldn't shoot them all into the sun. We are going to have to figure out how to handle this shift in social morality. If we assert that previously acceptable behavior or language shouldn't have been -- most living male comics will have made a few awful and demeaning jokes in their careers, for example -- then we're going to run into a lot of dudes who will need to be better but haven't done anything to deserve chemical castration.
Concern about a witch hunt is the bullshit defense of men who don't want to admit that there's an actual problem with actual bad actors that we are ferreting out here. But the kernel of logic in that fear is that when we are forced to conduct our trials in the public square rather than the legal one (and we have no legal recourse for much of this) and especially when we are operating from a place of high emotion, we are bound to bay for the blood of some people that will in retrospect not have deserved it. When the general public is judge, jury, defense, prosecution and executioner there is no protection against prosecutorial misconduct, nor any guarantee of justice. There's no place to appeal. The jury hears every bit of prejudicial gossip and has little way of determining which facts presented to them are true, and which made up by some disgusting troll for funsies.
This reckoning has been a long time coming and we're not even at the end of the beginning yet. There are predators and rapists to unmask and destroy. I hope every one who deserves it is caught out and left to rot.
I also hope that we take this chance to understand how a media firestorm works because we're about to destroy a lot of lives, and not just those of the men we discuss. It will hurt their partners and coworkers and their extended families. It will scar their children. I don't see any way to avoid that in this war on predators, and I think that any major societal shift is going to have collateral damage. But we can take lessons from this so that we're ready next time we have a public reckoning for something. Collateral damage should always be minimized wherever possible.
There is Right, and Wrong, and soon when the people that we have destroyed come to tell us about it, even if we think they deserved it, we should take a second to listen. Not for their sakes, but for ours. Because if we really care about doing Right, we will take care that we don't become the monsters ourselves.
We do not underpay and overwork people here so give the lady the monies to pay the writers with: