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Why Are We Hunting Warlocks?

Claire Berlinski on the moral panic targeting male sexuality

A lot of you have sent me a link to Claire Berlinski’s powerful essay denouncing what she calls “The Warlock Hunt”. It really is as good as you say.

Berlinski starts by recounting some of the accusations women have made against men for sexual harassment in recent weeks. Then:

All true; yet something is troubling me. Recently I saw a friend—a man—pilloried on Facebook for asking if #metoo is going too far. “No,” said his female interlocutors. “Women have endured far too many years of harassment, humiliation, and injustice. We’ll tell you when it’s gone too far.” But I’m part of that “we,” and I say it is going too far. Mass hysteria has set in. It has become a classic moral panic, one that is ultimately as dangerous to women as to men.

If you are reading this, it means I have found an outlet that has not just fired an editor for sexual harassment. This article circulated from publication to publication, like old-fashioned samizdat, and was rejected repeatedly with a sotto voce, “Don’t tell anyone. I agree with you. But no.” Friends have urged me not to publish it under my own name, vividly describing the mob that will tear me from limb to limb and leave the dingoes to pick over my flesh. It says something, doesn’t it, that I’ve been more hesitant to speak about this than I’ve been of getting on the wrong side of the mafia, al-Qaeda, or the Kremlin?

But speak I must. It now takes only one accusation to destroy a man’s life. Just one for him to be tried and sentenced in the court of public opinion, overnight costing him his livelihood and social respectability. We are on a frenzied extrajudicial warlock hunt that does not pause to parse the difference between rape and stupidity. The punishment for sexual harassment is so grave that clearly this crime—like any other serious crime—requires an unambiguous definition. We have nothing of the sort.

Berlinski said that yes, she has often been the recipient of untoward attention from lusty males, including a drunken Oxford don who grabbed her rear end and made a lewd remark at a Christmas party:

But here is the thing. I did not freeze, nor was I terrified. I was amused and flattered and thought little of it. I knew full well he’d been dying to do that. Our tutorials—which took place one-on-one, with no chaperones—were livelier intellectually for that sublimated undercurrent. He was an Oxford don and so had power over me, sensu strictu. I was a 20-year-old undergraduate. But I also had power over him—power sufficient to cause a venerable don to make a perfect fool of himself at a Christmas party. Unsurprisingly, I loved having that power. But now I have too much power. I have the power to destroy someone whose tutorials were invaluable to me and shaped my entire intellectual life much for the better. This is a power I do not want and should not have.

Over the course of my academic and professional career, many men who in some way held a position of power over me have made lewd jokes in my presence, or reminisced drunkenly of past lovers, or confessed sexual fantasies. They have hugged me, flirted with me, on occasion propositioned me. For the most part, this male attention has amused me and given me reason to look forward to otherwise dreary days at work. I dread the day I lose my power over men, which I have used to coax them to confide to me on the record secrets they would never have vouchsafed to a male journalist. I did not feel “demeaned” by the realization that some men esteemed my cleavage more than my talent; I felt damned lucky to have enough talent to exploit my cleavage.

But what if I now feel differently? What if—perhaps moved by the testimony of the many women who have come forward in recent weeks—I were to realize that the ambient sexual culture I meekly accepted as “amusing” was in fact repulsive and loathsome? What if I now realize it did me great emotional damage, harm so profound that only now do I recognize it?

Apparently, some women feel precisely this way.

Berlinski then goes on to talk about how in real life — the place where human beings, not automatons or ideologues, live — relations between men and women are complicated and fraught with a sexual tension that can be delicious:

Courtship is not a phenomenon so minor to our behavioral repertoire that we can readily expunge it from the workplace. It is central to human life. Men and women are attracted to each other; the human race could not perpetuate itself otherwise; and anyone who imagines they will cease to be attracted to each other—or act as if they were not—in the workplace, or any other place, is delusional. Anyone who imagines it is easy for a man to figure out whether a woman might like to be kissed is insane. The difficulty of ascertaining whether one’s passions are reciprocated is the theme of 90 percent of human literature and every romantic comedy or pop song ever written.

Romance involves the most complex of human emotions, desire the most powerful of human drives. It is so easy to read the signals wrong. Every honest man will tell you that at times he has misread these signals, and so will every honest woman. The insistence that an unwanted kiss is always about power, not courtship, simply isn’t a serious theory of the case—not when the punishment for this crime is so grave. Men, too, are entitled to the benefit of the doubt, and even to a presumption of innocence.

Berlinski is scandalized by the way accused men are accepting blame. It reminds her of Communist show trials:

They are all confessing in the same dazed, rote, mechanical way. It’s always the same statement: “I have come to realize that it does not matter that, at the time, I may have perceived my words as playful. It does not matter that, at the time, I may have felt that we were flirting. It does not matter that, at the time, I may have felt what I said was okay. The only thing that matters is how I made these three women feel,” said Representative Steve Lebsock. Now that is a remarkable thing to say. Why doesn’t it matter what he thought what was happening? Why would we accept as remotely rational the idea that the only thing that matters is how the women felt? The confession continues in the same vein: “It is hard for me to express how shocked I am to realize the depth of the pain I have caused and my journey now is to come to terms with my demons and I’ve brought on a team of therapists and I will be entering counselling and reflecting carefully on issues of gender inequality, power, and privilege in our society and—”

For God’s sake, why are these men all humiliating themselves? It’s not like confessing will bring forgiveness. They must all know, like Bukharin, that no matter what they say, the ritual of confession will be followed by the ritual of liquidation. If they said, “You’ve all lost your f*cking minds, stop sniffing my underwear and leave me the f*ck alone,” they’d meet exactly the same fate. Why didn’t Bukharin say, To hell with you. You may kill me, but you will not make me grovel?” I used to wonder, but now I see. Am I the only one who finds these canned, rote, mechanical, brainwashed apologies deeply creepy? Isn’t anyone else put in mind of the Cultural Revolution’s Struggle Sessions, where the accused were dragged before crowds to condemn themselves and plead for forgiveness? This very form of ritual public humiliation, aimed at eliminating all traces of reactionary thinking, now awaits anyone accused of providing an unwanted backrub.

This Berlinski essay really brings home what readers and friends who grew up under Communism have been trying to tell me about the way Western culture is changing for the worst.

Here’s the world we have created for ourselves, says Berlinski:

Given the events of recent weeks, we can be certain of this: From now on, men with any instinct for self-preservation will cease to speak of anything personal, anything sexual, in our presence. They will make no bawdy jokes when we are listening. They will adopt in our presence great deference to our exquisite sensitivity and frailty. Many women seem positively joyful at this prospect. The Revolution has at last been achieved! But how could this be the world we want? Isn’t this the world we escaped?

Powerful. It brings to mind the time I was accused of racism in the workplace on completely spurious grounds. This accusation would have been laughed out of any remotely fair-minded tribunal. But my accuser was a racial minority, and I understood quite clearly the power he had over me: he could have easily compelled our employer to fire me, and used language indicating that he was willing to press it. That’s why I did not formally challenge his absurd claim … but I also knew that never, ever should I exchange a single word with that man again, other than what is absolutely necessary to conduct business. And even then I would weigh every word carefully.

This was a man I had worked with for years, and on whom I was on friendly terms. The fact that a single word — calling terrorists “savages” — caused him to go not to me to express his offense and concern, but immediately to our supervisor with language indicating that he was prepared to take legal action — well, that revealed to me that I was not safe talking with him. And it infuriated me that he had that kind of power over me within the culture of our company.

A friendship ended that day, as did a normal working relationship. I don’t work in an office now, but the eagerness more and more people have to take hysterical offense at normal human behavior — including the all-too-human propensity to cross certain lines, however inadvertently — makes me much more careful about those I choose to socialize with. You just never know who will be willing to destroy you via social media or otherwise for something they you said, or that they claim you said.

Now that I think about it, I regret my response when the Texas Republican Congressman Joe Barton was humiliated by a former lover who released video of the elderly man masturbating. I still believe, as I said then, that Joe Barton had no business sending sex videos of himself to anybody. But in light of Berlinski’s essay, I find a certain pity for men and women who abase themselves for love or lust. Barton shouldn’t have done what he did, but none of us had a right to see it. Many of us would be destroyed if our own most intimate acts were made public. The fact that Barton made this possible by recording himself does not make it any less monstrous that this made it into the public space.

I am reminded of the character Sabina from Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, who believed that we could only be fully human if we maintained a strict private space around ourselves:

For Sabina, living in truth, lying neither to ourselves nor to others, was possible only away from the public: the moment someone keeps an eye on what we do, we involuntarily make allowances for that eye, and nothing we do is truthful. Having a public, keeping a public in mind, means living in lies.

With social media, we always have to keep a public in mind, because you never know when someone might be recording you, or will broadcast private words, often out of context, all for the sake of destroying you.

Please read the whole thing. There’s a lot more to the Berlinski essay than I’ve been able to speak of here. One of the readers who e-mailed me the essay commented:

I think it says a lot of the stuff I’ve been thinking. We live in a world of shame without sin – this is the legacy of Rousseau. The absence of any notion of sin (and hence forgiveness), or any notion of male/female complementarity, along with the fetishization of “consent” and the absolute authority of internal states of feeling (the crux of Kennedy’s Obergefell ruling) has rendered us unable to think sensibly about how men and women relate to each other. I think the author is largely correct that the public shamings arise from an inchoate sense of decline and the costs associated with cultural emasculation. The generational insistence in the academy that masculinity is “toxic” is making the world a less interesting and more dangerous place.

One thing I’d especially like to toss out for conversation: her theory on why this is happening:

I’m not sure what, precisely, is now driving us over the edge. But I’d suggest looking at the obvious. The President of the United States is Donald J. Trump. Our country is not what we thought it was. We’re a fading superpower in a world of enemies. The people now running the United States cannot remotely persuade us, even for five minutes, that they know what they’re doing and are capable of keeping us safe. Who among us doesn’t feel profound anxiety about this? Daddy-the-President turns out to be a hapless dotard. Women who had hopefully imagined rough men standing ready to do violence on our behalf so we could sleep peacefully in our beds at night have discovered instead—psychologically speaking—that Daddy is dead.

I don’t know about that. But I think the answer is probably to be found in the exploration of this question posed by Aaron Renn in the new issue of his e-mail newsletter The Masculinist (subscribe to it for free here):

Why did 125 million women buy a copy of 50 Shades of Grey? 125 million! This makes it one of the single biggest selling books in all of human history. Why was that?



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