Fixing the System that Gave us Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and Louis C.K.
"When people do bad things it doesn’t negate the good things they’ve done."
“I’m such a bad person!” my five-year-old whines.
I’ve just reprimanded him for not listening the first time, for the fifth time that day.
“You’re not a bad person,” I remind him. “You’ve made a bad choice.”
I’m the person my friends made fun of for having super-involved conversations with a tantruming toddler in the supermarket. I did it anyway because I know the language parents use becomes the voice their children hear in their heads.
Parenting is a daily reminder that people are neither good nor bad. People make positive choices and negative choices. People do just things and unjust things, and occasionally people do things that are both helpful and harmful at the same time.
The conversation with my son comes on the same day I have in an epic, cross country text conversation with one of my best (female) friends about whether Louis C.K. is allegedly “as bad” as “those other guys.” (I think he is.) Midday we switch to analyzing his self-aggrandizing “apology.” It’s the same day I have a Facebook conversation with a (male) friend who is defending Matthew Weiner. (A supposed one-time, off-colour comment in a writers’ room is not the same as a pattern of bad actions, he says.) (And, for the record, a representative for Weiner has denied the accusation.)
It’s the same day I have a conversation with a woman my mom’s age about a “continuum of misdeeds” and “what the hell are we going to do about all of this?”
The next morning I see a post from a friend: Not George Takei, too! (In response, Takei posted this on his Facebook page: “The events he [Scott R. Bruton] describes back in the 1980s simply did not occur, and I do not know why he has claimed them now.”)
It’s then I realize what’s actually happening. America is waking up to my normal. The world I have always lived in is one in which people we want to admire are capable of great and terrible acts.
I am the daughter of a complicated man. When he died more than a decade ago, at age 62, in debt and under slightly mysterious circumstances, we did not have a funeral because we were worried about who might show up. Would they hold us responsible for his misdeeds? Would they demand payment on his substantial debts? And yet, there are people who repeatedly tell me my father made them who they are or rescued them from a life they didn’t want to lead. My father was a teacher, a coach, and a college administrator. He was also, in my estimation, a “dry drunk” and a gambling addict. These are things I’ve had to live with for a long time. I am an expert at loving an imperfect individual, but I am not an apologist for his bad acts.
What do we do with our feelings about Louis C.K., who tackled issues in his comedy that needed to be tackled? Or our feelings about George Takei whose Facebook feed has been the heart of a nation so desperate for a guiding light?
We change the system that has normalized “locker room talk.” Looking for people to behave perfectly at all times is only going to leave us disappointed, often heartbroken and occasionally in peril. But dismantling the system that protects the bad actions of people in power will have a real impact: it will make us safer. Having diverse leadership is a great way to minimize the ability for one person or one system of beliefs to go unchecked. It also increases the chances that someone who feels victimized will have the necessary support to come forward.
When people do bad things it doesn’t negate the good things they’ve done. But the fact they’ve done good things doesn’t mean they haven’t done bad things. Men in power are able to abuse their stature because the system lets them. This is not victim blaming, this is a call to action.
We need to accept the complexity of the world around us. We all remember the institutions that were “too big to fail,” but fail us they did, bailout or not. Powerful people are responsible for their actions, and we are responsible for creating a new normal.
The recent allegations of widespread abuse of power are taking us somewhere. Let’s not look for new idols to put on pedestals, new “perfect” people who say the right thing in public and donate to the right charities. We’re going to have to sit with the fact that people are complicated, and real life is made up of more than soundbites. Systematic change can protect us. Let’s look for ways to give equal voice and agency to a more diverse group of people to create a greater good for us all. And when things happen, as they will, let’s look to encourage accountability and repair rather than grandstanding.
I’ve lived for years with the financial harm my father caused many, including me. I also recognize his voice in my ability to express myself, and I see the shape of his mouth when I look in the mirror. I am not able to write him off completely, the way we might boycott an actor or an industry. In holding space for my father’s complexity, I have learned to be suspect of simple narratives.
I will continue to teach my children that they are neither good nor bad but have the capacity for good and bad actions. Individuals are imperfect, but together we can create protective structures that safeguard the vulnerable and hold the powerful accountable, or better yet, distribute the power more evenly among us.