Are Sexual Harassment Claims Starting to Backfire?

Member Group : Freindly Fire

“It doesn’t show signs of stopping.”

Lyrics to “Let It Snow,” but also the perfect descriptor for the ongoing sexual harassment saga that has profoundly touched America. In the age of social media and 24/7 news, most dramas have a lifespan of several days before attention shifts to the next story.

Not so here.

Huge heads have rolled, from Harvey Weinstein to Matt Lauer to Al Franken. And if anything, the trend is accelerating.

The latest to find himself on the firing line is state Sen. Daylin Leach, an outspoken, humorous, fiercely liberal, self-proclaimed champion of “women’s rights” – whatever that means.

The senator stands accused of racy language and inappropriate touching. Despite calls to resign, Leach, in his firebrand style, went on the offensive, releasing a statement defending himself. At first look, Leach seems believable, openly stating “my humor is no more racy than the average person’s, but to be clear, it’s not pure, either.” He added that his jokes and colorful language were met with laughter, and were even reciprocated by one of his accusers – a woman who is now claiming she was offended ten years ago, yet, according to Leach, continued to work for him, donate to his campaigns and banter with bawdy language in the years since.

Leach also stated that in the instances where he is accused of inappropriate contact, both occurred in rooms full of people and cameras. He admitted that his gregarious style sometimes made him grasp a forearm or pat a back, but denied inappropriate touching.

So did he, or didn’t he? And what’s a senator to do?

There are no easy answers. So let’s take a look at how the sexual harassment storm is refreshing the environment – but also potentially victimizing the innocent.

1)First things first. Politicians, such as Gov. Tom Wolf, should not be calling on elected officials to resign in the wake of allegations, for two critically important reasons: A) It is not their place. Sure, such baggage hurts their party, but politics should be irrelevant. A lawmaker is ultimately accountable to only one entity: The electorate. It, not political leaders, should decide whether an elected official is fit for office.

And B), what ever happened to “due process?” Since when are Americans guilty before being proven innocent? That’s not how it’s supposed to work. Granted, most of these cases do not involve criminal courts, and it is hard to prove, and disprove, allegations, but that’s why God made objective investigations. When enough evidence is collected – emails, texts, Matt Lauer’s door lock button hidden under his desk, everything Weinstein did – then the court of public opinion can rightfully exert pressure for the guilty to step down, be they a film producer, news anchor, celebrity chef, or elected official.

But to cavalierly engage in what has been, at times, a witch hunt, with some demanding eternal damnation for the offenders, is misguided. Worse, some accusations are based on flimsy accounts of alleged events that occurred ten, 20, even 30 years ago, and often for things that, while not appropriate, should not rise to levels of such extreme retribution. Some are losing their reputations and livelihoods – which places their families in jeopardy – for things that many of both sexes did decades ago while in college or on the dating scene. That in no way excuses bad behavior, but a racy joke, suggestive language, a inappropriate gaze, or even putting an arm around another at a far-in-the-past party, should not become a “life sentence,” replete with a scarlet-letter “harasser” label forever defining people.

Humans are, by definition, flawed. But we also have the unique ability to sincerely apologize, forgive, and learn from mistakes – imparting that wisdom on future generations.

2) Should a leash be put on Leach? Should he resign? Based on what we know, no. For now, let’s assume his statement to be true. Admittedly, that’s a big “if,” because often when an accused denies accusations outright, or says, “it was only once,” the flood gates open. However, if it turns out that his only “crimes” are overly using his hands in animated conversation (which would damn all Italians, too), and engaging in racy language, then he should weather the storm since he would be “guilty” of the exact same thing everyone else has done at some point in their lives.

And while this author is not big on conspiracies, the possibility exists that supporters of his primary opponents in the upcoming congressional race could be encouraging accusers to step forward with exaggerated claims. We simply don’t know the truth yet. Politics is a dirty business, and stranger things have happened. On the other hand, only Daylin Leach knows if there’s “more to come.” If so, he should come clean now, because the truth is bound to emerge.

3) Similarly, national talk show host Tavis Smiley gave a compelling interview on accusations against him. He was furious that NPR did not inform him of the accusations, and subsequent investigation. And by the way, why didn’t they extend him that courtesy? He should have been presumed innocent (unless NPR already knew of bad behavior).

He has vehemently denied all accusations, explaining that some employees were likely offended because he ran a tight ship in a demanding environment. At face value, that’s believable, because many Americans now get “offended” whenever they don’t like something, such as accountability in the workplace. Smiley also claims there were no explicit emails and texts, except to those with whom he was in proven consensual relationships.

Since the truth is not known in many cases, the McCarthyism – where the accused are swiftly pronounced guilty, and accusers are believed without question – must stop. Those accused deserve their “day in court,” lest our society become so totalitarian that mere accusations become weapons to fulfill political, business and personal agendas, irrelevant of truth.

4) It is incomprehensible how many on both sides continue to politicize sexual harassment. This author disagrees with both Leach and Smiley on most issues (except marijuana legalization – go figure), but who cares? Totally irrelevant. The minute that harassment turns into a “gotcha” game to fell an opponent – facts be damned – the lower we sink.

5) There was a furious backlash on social media against actor Matt Damon who, in a recent interview, stated, “I do believe that there’s a spectrum of behavior … there’s a difference between patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation, right? Both of those behaviors need to be confronted and eradicated without question, but they shouldn’t be conflated, right?”

What’s wrong with that? Why so much vitriol? He wasn’t excusing any form of harassment, but correctly stating that there are varying degrees. He’s right – touching a woman’s behind 15 years ago is not equivalent to assault or rape! Different offenses merit different consequences. That’s how it works with our laws, and with infractions in sports, schools and companies. All have regulations that merit different forms of punishment when violated. So too should it be for sexual harassment, especially when allegations stem from decades ago, and are not provable either way. Time to use some common sense and stop pretending that rational people can’t tell the difference between a serial predator like Weinstein and someone making a dirty joke from the ‘90s. Enough is enough.

Too many in Hollywood were inexcusably late in using their platforms to expose Weinstein, et al. That aside, the only way to truly tackle sexual harassment is to talk about it honestly and civilly.

But if we allow the social media megaphone to drown out and demonize those with differing ideas, whether because of intolerance, ignorance or ulterior motivation, then nothing will be accomplished.

And that would be the biggest tragedy of all.

Chris Freind is an independent columnist and commentator. His print column appears every Wednesday. He can be reached at [email protected].