My segment on an NPR panel yesterday regarding the sexual harassment issue was cut short because “All Things Considered” had to wedge in a report on the terror attack in Egypt. I get it: it’s live radio, and its a news show. Still, one can question whether dealing with such a difficult and complex issue in so little time—three of us plus ace moderator Michel Martin ended up splitting less than 10 minutes among us–does more harm than good. Farajii Muhammad, who was in the studio with me and whom I had a chance to chat with at length, said that he was interested in having me on his own show to discuss the issue. We shall see.
Here’s the transcript:
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We’re going to wheel it around now to head into the Barbershop. That’s where we gather interesting folks to talk about what’s in the news and what’s on our minds. In the chairs for a shape up today are Steven Petrow. He’s contributing writer to The Washington Post and a columnist for USA Today. His particular focus is writing about manners. We reached him in Chapel Hill, N.C., via Skype. Welcome back, Steven.
STEVEN PETROW: Hello, Michel.
MARTIN: Also with us is another regular, Farajii Muhammad. He’s the host of For The Culture, a radio show on member station WEAA in Baltimore. He’s with us in our studios in Washington, D.C., as well. Welcome back, Farajii.
FARAJII MUHAMMAD, BYLINE: Thank you.
MARTIN: And finally, Jack Marshall, the president and founder of ProEthics. That’s an ethical training and consultancy. And he was kind enough to join us here in D.C. as well. Good to have you back with us.
MARTIN: Yeah, pleasure, Michel. Thank you.
MARTIN: So we’re going to talk about an issue that’s been very much in the news here. And this is a situation where reporters are not only covering the news, they are making the news, but not in a good way. Charlie Rose, the venerable newsman with shows on both CBS and PBS, was accused of sexual harassment by at least eight women. Both networks stopped working with him. Charlie Rose has apologized for what he said was inappropriate behavior.
There’s a New York Times reporter. Glenn Thrush was accused of inappropriate behavior. He’s suspended while the Times says it’s investigating. And then, of course, more from Hollywood. Pixar co-founder, John Lasseter, says he’s taking a sabbatical in response to accusations of misconduct. And as you may remember, NPR is not immune. It’s among the news organizations that have suspended or fired executives for inappropriate conduct.
So let me mention that our colleague – the great NPR colleague – Susan Stamberg mentioned to me that she’s curious about how men are responding to all this and how they’re talking about all this, especially with each other. So we – men, we’d call you – not just because you meet the baseline qualification but also because each of you is in the business of answering other people’s questions. I mean, people come to each of you for advice about things. And so let’s – I’m just wondering what are they saying.
So, Steven, I’ll start with you because you’re the manners guy and people explicitly write to you and say, what do I do? And what are people saying, particularly your male correspondents?
PETROW: Well, what I want to say at the outset here is that manners are really about community standards, Michel. And we as a community have not been enforcing the standards that we now say we hold dear. And what – probably, what troubles me most is how many people – but, really, I should say how many guys – knew about Harvey Weinstein, knew about Charlie Rose and many of the others. But we turned a blind eye. We turned a deaf ear. And we can’t have it both ways.
We’ve been bystanders when we need to be upstanders (ph). And many people don’t even know what the word upstander means. It means someone who sees wrongs and acts. And I was really taken by a post from Scott – Scott Greenberg (ph) – Scott Rosenberg who worked with Harvey Weinstein, and he said everybody F-ing (ph) knew it, you know? And nobody did smack. And that’s a big part of the problem here. So many guys have been complicit in what has come down.
MARTIN: So, Jack, what are people saying to you? I’m guessing that as a person who consults with businesses that they’re – people are talking to you about this. What are they saying?
JACK MARSHALL: Well, there are two kinds of reactions from men. There’s one group of men who, I would say, have been raised right, who don’t understand this stuff at all, and it shocks them. I mean, they, you know, hear things about, like, Charlie – you know, Charlie Rose walking around nude with the people that accompanied him to a hotel or Louis C.K. deciding to masturbate in front of colleagues. They say, who would do this?
And yet, there’s another side of men who are just clueless. They don’t get it. They don’t get it. And this is a matter of what I refer to as an ethics alarm not ringing. They don’t recognize that what this is is abusive and to a great extent it – you remember, sexual harassment has to be unwelcomed. A lot of them don’t – literally don’t think that when they behave this way it is unwelcomed. And that’s – that is astounding to me, as well. But that’s the way it is.
MARTIN: Farajii, what about you? You work with a lot of younger guys. What are they saying?
MUHAMMAD: Right now, there is – I would agree that there are these two sets of guys. But then there’s also this very, very slippery slope where guys are asking questions. They might hear the allegations. They might hear who the allegations are coming from or who it’s targeted toward. But then you have those folks who are just like, OK, so what was she doing? What was the circumstances of the situation?
And I think that’s a very, very dangerous slope to go down because now we’re going to go into this place of victim blaming, where we’re starting to look at these women as if their word alone is just not enough that we have to have all of these pieces and the stars have to be aligned for their story to be truthful. And I think, at the end of the day, we should look into these things, but not automatically make the assumption that these women are lying.
MARTIN: Well, I don’t know if that’s new because I feel like that’s been part of it all along. I mean, this is part of why women say that they haven’t spoken up before. Now, one of the things I was curious about is, do the men that talk to you that you speak with – is there a way back for them? I mean, for some of these men, their careers are over, and no one’s crying about this. But I’m guessing that there are other men who are really worried about – like, I’m on the borderline here, let’s say. Or…
MUHAMMAD: Oh, I mean – yeah – I think…
MARTIN: What do you think about that?
MUHAMMAD: I think there are a lot of guys now. I think we all, as men, have to check ourselves and making sure that we’re not crossing certain lines. I mean, it’s a very highly sensitive, very tense moment to be a guy, and especially if you’re a guy in a certain level of position of power or influence. So I think that that has to be – there has to be some real reflection from guys, right? We have to make sure that we do some checks and balances. And like you said, like, make sure that we kind of see things through because the simple statement can be misinterpreted…
MARSHALL: Well, I wrote…
MARTIN: Jack Marshall.
MARSHALL: Yeah, I wrote a – the apology I thought Al Franken should have written after the first because I thought his two apologies, particularly his second one, were horrible. And one of the things I wrote was – for Al Franken was, I am certain that there are other women who have been mistreated by me during this period, and I want to apologize to them, too. And I was in a culture where this was considered so normal and so reflex that I probably don’t even remember it. And sure enough there were. And we knew there were going to be. And that’s what men have to look at – that they have to look back at their past, the culture they worked in, their practices and presume, in many cases, that they engaged in this stuff.
MUHAMMAD: And their attitude.
MARTIN: Well, Steven, what about you? Because you’re a person who has a – is an advocate for doing what one can do to mend fraught relations. I mean, what do you think about this? I mean, should there be – I don’t know. What should happen? I mean, is there like a Truth and Reconciliation Day that we can have for gender offenders? I don’t – what should happen?
PETROW: That would be awfully easy for guys, I have to say. But, you know, I’ve been getting a number of questions from men who say they’re not sure if their past actions constitute sexual misconduct and what should they do. They’re kind of afraid to open that door. And I have been telling them and writing about this and saying, you know, if you have this concern, you should pick up the phone and make that call. I mean, the worst that you’ll hear is that they do feel like you you acted inappropriately. And that will give you the kind of opportunity to apologize properly, the way Jack was just referring, and, you know, use your words.
You know, most of the offenders here are not celebrities. We’re all not Charlie Roses and so on. You know, this is a smaller sphere where, you know, acts of kindness, acts of listening and making amends really matter a lot to everybody. And I think that’s a way to go when you’re looking back. Looking forward, I think everybody needs to really rethink the way they act and the way they talk.
MARSHALL: There’s another concern, Michel…
MARTIN: Briefly, Jack, if you can.
MARSHALL: Yeah, I’m sorry, (unintelligible) – and that’s the fear that this is turning into the terror from the French Revolution or to a witch hunt, where someone may have someone who’s been just waiting to come out of the darkness and ruin somebody’s life, ruin somebody’s reputation in public. So there’s no way, really, no way to respond.
MARTIN: I mean, has that actually happened yet? I mean, has there been a situation…
PETROW: Yeah, I have seen…
MARTIN: …Where that’s actually happened? I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know. To be continued. Obviously, it’s a subject that we need more time – notice I didn’t ask for a confession from anybody here…
PETROW: Oh, no.
MARTIN: …So we’ll talk about that another…
MARSHALL: Thank you, Michel. Happy Thanksgiving.
MARTIN: All right – Jack Marshall, Steven Petrow, Farajii Muhammad.
[Note, please, I did NOT say “Happy Thanksgiving. That was Steven Petrow.]
What I wanted to add, and didn’t have the time, were two major points:
1 Although Michel appeared to resist the idea, these accusations can be weaponized, just like rape accusations on campus. Sexual harassment law can be used as a sword as well as a shield, and if provided the chance, I can explain how and give real life examples.
One is Anita Hill.
2. The fact that sexual harassment has to be unwelcome sexual attention in the workplace is not generally understood. It also is unique: what other acts are deemed unlawful, regardless of intent, based on how the object of those acts chooses to react? This feature is why sexual harassment law is viewed by many women and men as inherently unfair. It literally means—I have a skit I use in training that illustrates this—that if actors George Clooney and Steve Buscemi behave exactly the same toward an object of their affections in a workplace setting, and the woman involved finds George attractive and Steve not so much, Steve has engaged in sexual harassment, but George hasn’t.
“When ethics fail the law steps in,” and this is a case where the law is a terrible substitute for ethics. Men like George, and, yes, Trump and even Harvey, are convinced that their touches, hugs, gropes and kisses won’t be unwelcome, and so they don’t think of themselves as harassers. For poor Steve, Al, Louis and other homely non-billionaires, it’s worth a shot, in their mind.
Meanwhile, what is “welcome”? This is what I really wanted to raise. Is the conduct by a man with a grope or a kiss sexual harassment whenever the woman decides she would have rather it hadn’t happened? That is the issue raised by these late allegations. Let’s say a woman was kissed by Donald Trump, and afterwards, she said to her friends, “That was cool! Donald Trump kissed me, just like that!” Then he’s running for President, and everyone she knows hates the guy, and now she thinks, “Yuck! That creep kissed me! I was one of those women he was bragging to Billy Bush about! He harassed me!”
Is that fair? Is that right? Can a man be retroactively guilty of sexual harassment because a woman’s perception of what happened changes over time?
This is what I wanted to talk about, and it is something that needs serious discussion.