In July 1209, the Catholic armies of the Albigensian Crusade had surrounded the town of Béziers in what is today southern France. Within the walls huddled some 20,000 people, a mix of orthodox Catholics and heretic Catharists, a gnostic sect notorious for their sexual license. When the crusader armies unexpectedly breached Béziers’ defenses, they hurried to ask their commander, the papal legate Arnaud Amalric, how they should distinguish between Catharists and true Christians.
Amalric’s response, albeit paraphrased, has lived in infamy: “Kill them all, and let God sort them out.”
With the ongoing #MeToo movement and its accompanying purge of sexually abusive men, American society is currently in the throes of its own great nonreligious crusade against a highly sexualized and long hidden “heresy.” Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose makes a strong case that the medieval persecution of heresy had as much to do with sex as with religion, and Arthur Miller observed in his notes on The Crucible that “[s]ex, sin, and the Devil were early linked.” It’s no accident that the phrase “witch hunt” is being thrown around. We’ve ditched the religion but kept the sex.
There are, however, a few major differences between John Proctor’s New England and Harvey Weinstein’s America. One is that, in the latter case, our devil is truly among us. There really are sexual harassers and abusers—far more than I ever imagined—who must be rooted out. Another is that, unlike 13th-century France and 17th-century Salem, we don’t execute our sexual heretics. Even after exposure and public shaming, they will continue to live among us, and if we can’t let God sort them out in the next life, that means we have to sort them out in this one.
There’s certainly plenty of sorting to be done. In a November 21 column for the Los Angeles Times, conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg wrote, “Groping a woman’s backside is not the same thing as raping a woman. And yet [Al] Franken’s name is routinely listed alongside [Roy] Moore’s and Weinstein’s.” Even that statement partakes of the problem it claims to diagnose, since Moore has been only accused of attempted rape. Obviously all three actions are morally wrong and have rightly been brought to light, but if we fail to distinguish among them, we will also fail to devise appropriately proportional responses.
As Jack Hunter observed in a recent article for Rare Politics, politicians have the luxury of finishing out their terms. They’ve also learned from Bill Clinton and Donald Trump (though, please God, not Roy Moore) that sexual misconduct allegations aren’t necessarily deal-breakers with voters. This enables accused public servants like Franken, John Conyers, and Joe Barton to contemplate how different offenses should be punished.
In the private sector, where bad press can impact one’s bottom line more immediately, there have been no such pauses for reflection. At press time, more than a dozen men had accused Kevin Spacey of groping or other forms of sexual misconduct, yet most of the consequences he’d suffered came quickly after Anthony Rapp’s original allegation. Spacey was fired from “House of Cards” (to which I say good riddance after the godawful fifth season, but I digress), dropped by his agent and publicist, and had a finished film permanently shelved. The charges that have since emerged clearly paint Spacey as a sexual predator, but I can’t help thinking that, on the basis of Rapp’s story alone, those measures may have been overreactions.
Yes, Rapp was underage, but the alleged incident happened more than 30 years ago when Spacey was, or at least claims to have been, heavily intoxicated. Spacey even issued an apology, albeit a very strange one. My question is this: When should the accused be made an utter pariah, and when should an apology be good enough? Some misconduct, like that of Garrison Keillor or of Michael Scott from “The Office,” seems to stem more from social ineptitude than sexual predation. These people deserve to be exposed and corrected. As one blogger observed, however, there must also be a way for less serious offenders “to return to civil society if they are willing and able to redeem themselves.”
What the #MeToo revolution currently lacks is a path to redemption, and for the moment, that shouldn’t be our primary concern. This is about justice for the victims, not pity for the perpetrators. But if we fail to plan for the day after, this unprecedented movement could collapse under the weight of its own lack of discernment. Some of the accused, like Weinstein, should be permanently exiled to the wilderness, but others should be allowed to return after their 40 days and nights.
When Amalric ordered the massacre at Béziers, he did so fearing that a less extreme approach might allow some Catharists to escape, and although such tactics eventually wiped out the heretical sect, they also left southern France in ruins. God may have sorted out the souls of the 20,000 killed that day, but such buck-passing is not an option for us. For the sake of the newly empowered victims, we must find a way to distinguish between the innocent, the redeemable, and the diabolical.
Grayson Quay is a freelance writer and M.A. student at Georgetown University.