Just minutes before the start of President Trump’s State of the Union address, Hillary Clinton dumped a mea culpa onto her Facebook page, explaining why, a decade earlier, she hadn’t fired a campaign staffer accused of sexual harassment.
In the same week, former PBS talk-show host Tavis Smiley, who was fired for allegations of improper conduct, made an appearance at George Washington University as part of a five-city road show to discuss workplace harassment. Rather than dropping out of sight, as dozens of others similarly deposed, Smiley is placing himself center stage for a chance to have his say.
And Thursday, the governing board of the Humane Society of the United States voted to keep CEO Wayne Pacelle as head of the organization despite three allegations of harassment and what some staffers described as a sexually intimidating culture.
What these three events suggest is a slight directional shift away from the carte-blanche power of the #MeToo movement, where accusation equals indictment, public shaming is conviction and sentencing usually means loss of employment and an extended stay in the virtual stockade of humiliation and disgrace.
First to Clinton. Her long Facebook post, doubtless calculated to get lost in the State of the Union news cycle, followed a familiar template: She would do things differently now than then. Wouldn’t we all? What was odd, however, is that the way she handled the case during her campaign in 2008 seems an appropriate way to handle things even now, except in the most egregious cases and certainly not where allegations rise to the level of criminality.
When she became aware of complaints against her faith adviser, Burns Strider, rather than fire the accused, she demoted him, docked his pay, physically moved him elsewhere and installed barriers to his contacting the woman via email, and ordered counseling. Her rationale was that she considered termination overly punitive and that she believes in second chances.
Rather than now succumb to pressures to explain herself, she should have stood her ground. That the culprit never sought counseling or that he continued his behavior in another job, at most, suggests a failure of oversight. Give me a flawed judgment made in good faith any day over a bad-faith apology for political expediency.
In a normal world, Clinton’s actions seem a rational approach to handling first-time complaints, again short of criminal behavior. Given that anyone can be accused of anything, our ipso facto presumption of guilt ought to cause the ghosts of Salem to rise up in protest. This isn’t to excuse or make light of transgressions recently brought to light, but to suggest we take a deep breath.
The power in numbers is irrefutable, but the implied truth therein must always be examined. #MeToo, even before reaching China, had reached sufficient mass to alter workplace gender transactions for the foreseeable future. This is good. In the meantime, however, men likely would appreciate being presumed innocent or at least not to be presumed predators.
Smiley, never shy around a microphone, has gone public in his search for justice. At GWU, he drew only a few dozen to the auditorium to hear him and three female experts discuss topics from gender and race to Hollywood and the media. Smiley has denied all allegations and says he was railroaded. He claims he doesn’t know who accusers are or of what, specifically, he was accused. PBS, which distributed Smiley’s talk show, reportedly found a pattern of affairs with multiple subordinates and that some staffers who felt their jobs depended on a sexual relationship with Smiley.
If Smiley’s small turnout here is any indication, it may be a while before dissenting men’s voices are welcome to the conversation. But a backlash is inevitable, especially as more people become uncomfortable with a social media-driven system of accusation without limitations or process.
Meanwhile, Pacelle seems to have been a beneficiary of a fair hearing. The HSUS board hired an outside law firm to conduct a monthlong investigation into the allegations and the board, based on the firm’s findings, voted in favor of keeping Pacelle. Part of their calculation was surely that his value to the mission of reducing animal suffering outweighed other considerations. Pacelle is generally credited with creating what has become a litigation-and-advocacy powerhouse, as well as raising the funds to do the work on a global scale.
Although seven of the 31 board members quit in protest—and the female accusers say they feel slighted—justice seems to have been better served. Either we respect process and the rules of law and order, or we risk becoming a land of “high-tech lynch mobs,” to borrow a phrase, where anyone’s turn could be next.