Until now, I have not been the tiniest bit tempted to comment on the sexual harassment suit against Bill O'Reilly; even now, all I really want to say about it is 'ugh.' (And: why did he have to talk about felafel, which I quite like but will now be unable to think about, let alone eat, for the foreseeable future? It took me long enough to forget what Monica Lewinsky did with perfectly good Altoids. Why can't all these annoying people pick on foods I don't like, like lima beans?) But Richard Cohen has written a rather obnoxious op ed about it in the Washington Post, which I do want to comment on.
Just for the record: obviously, I have no idea whether or not the allegations against O'Reilly are true. If anything I write seems to suggest otherwise, that's inadvertent. I am concerned with Cohen's views about sexual harassment, not with the facts of this case, whatever they might be.
Cohen begins by saying, correctly, that "if the allegations are true, there is no excusing O'Reilly." But most of his article is about the behavior of Andrea Mackris, the woman who sued him. He writes:
"Let us dispense with the boilerplate denunciation of O'Reilly as an alleged pig and even more boilerplate about him being the all-powerful man and Mackris being the totally powerless woman. All of that could be true. It also seems true, though, that Mackris either skipped classes in common sense when she was at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism or was playing O'Reilly like the proverbial violin.
Whether Mackris was aware of her power is impossible for me to say. But I can say that she never went to Fox's human resources department to complain about O'Reilly. She never seemed to realize that by not complaining and, more specifically, by going to dinner with him, to his hotel room and then, upon returning to Fox News, accepting assignments and a salary increase not given to others, she was hardly telling O'Reilly that she found his behavior thoroughly repugnant, as she says in her lawsuit. I almost pity O'Reilly. Off camera, he must be a bit slow.
(...) (I)t was a young female television producer who suggested I write about this because, if I may paraphrase, lawsuits such as Mackris's infantilize women. They portray women totally as victims, without recourse or remedy at their disposal. It insults common sense. It rewrites nature.
I can understand the rage of women subjected to the sort of sewer O'Reilly allegedly opened up on Mackris. If he did it, it is wrong -- just plain wrong. But it is also wrong for a woman to be even a bit complicit and then act as if she played no role whatsoever in the oldest game known to mankind. I can appreciate that Mackris was in an awful bear hug. But she screamed for help a bit late in the game."
A few comments. First, thanks to Cohen, I have now read Mackris' complaint in its entirety. At no point does she say that she was 'totally powerless' or a mere victim. She does say things like: "As a consequence of Plaintiff's sexual harassment by her supervisor, Defendant BILL O'REILLY during Plaintiff's employment at Defendants FOX, Plaintiff sustained conscious pain and suffering, physical injury, great mental distress, shock, fright, and humiliation." But she does not go on to add that she was without recourse or remedy. Nor does she deny her role in the story she recounts: she does go out to dinner with O'Reilly on several occasions, and she does go to his hotel room once to watch a speech, and she says as much. (She also notes the various times when she told him to stop, turned her phone off, and so forth.) I cannot imagine why Cohen writes as though she portrays herself as a passive and powerless victim, since she does no such thing.
Second, we should note that not only does Mackris not say that she had 'no recourse or remedy'; she does not act that way either. By filing this lawsuit she presents herself as having recourse through the courts, and as seeking remediation from the defendant. Cohen seems to feel that by seeking redress in this way, she presents herself as powerless. Is the idea that by taking action, she gives the impression that women are passive? Are women supposed to refrain from suing people who harass them because others might (inexplicably) conclude from this that they are powerless? Are we supposed to preserve the (supposed) perception of our power by the simple expedient of never actually using it?
Third, Cohen seems to find it suspicious that a woman might go out to a dinner she believes to be work-related with someone who has sexually harassed her, when that someone is her very powerful boss. It's a form of 'complicity', according to him. I can understand his bewilderment only by assuming that he has not had too many obnoxious bosses. Leaving sexual harassment to one side for the moment, people with obnoxious bosses often find themselves pretending to enjoy interactions that they dislike. If their boss is obnoxious enough to ask them out to dinner, often they go. This is especially true of people who have jobs that require not only competence at some task, but interpersonal skills: the kind of job where you can fail to get promoted because you're 'not a team player' or because you 'just don't fit in'. We all know this; and most of us have sat through any number of awful meals laughing at jokes that aren't funny for precisely this reason. (One great thing about being a philosophy professor is that it requires almost none of this, for which I daily give thanks.)
Being sexually harassed by your boss is just like this, except that instead of having to sit through inane conversations, you have to sit through speculations involving e.g. yourself and a vibrator. It's much more revolting, and harder to deal with, since you don't just have to sit through an encounter that's unpleasant; you have to choose between seeming not to mind, which might be taken as encouragement, and making your displeasure clear, which might make you 'not a team player' etc. But it's fundamentally the same dynamic, and there's nothing mysterious about it.
Fourth, when people like Cohen discuss cases like this, they often imply that there's something particularly bad about allowing these conversations to occur because you want something. I think this is wrong. I have never sat through a dinner like the ones Mackris describes for the sake of professional advancement, but I have done this for the sake of something else I wanted. When I was an undergraduate, I was writing a senior thesis on a topic that involved another discipline, one I needed to know more about in order to write what I wanted to write. I went looking for help, and started talking to a senior professor (now dead) in the discipline in question. We just hit it off and started talking regularly, always about ideas; and it never occurred to me to suspect that there was anything remotely sexual involved, perhaps because he was about 40 years my senior. But then he started asking me to go to New York with him, to spend the summer with him, and so on and so forth. This was horrifying to me, all the more so because I really liked and respected him, and hated to think that he was doing what he seemed to be doing. But he was.
And here's the point: I did decline all of his invitations, and I was very clear about that. But I did not stop going to talk to him, alone, in his office, which was in a rather remote and isolated place, until about two more months had passed. And why not? Because there was something I very much wanted from him, namely knowledge about the discipline he was in, and the opportunity to talk about it with someone who was, like him, really brilliant in that field. This was, of course, a nice respectable desire, even a tasteful one; nothing as crude as mere ambition or a desire for professional success. But so what? I claim to understand why I did what I did: I wanted something enough to put up with unpleasant advances to get it, at least for a while. So, if her allegations are true, did Andrea Mackris. There is nothing incomprehensible about this.
But there is something quite odd about pretending not to understand in this case. People who have to deal with sexual harassment are already victimized, whether or not they are "mere victims". I, for one, thought it was completely unfair that I had to walk through this minefield just in order to be able to talk to a professor about something I needed to know about. Most students did not have to do that, nor (for that matter) were they ever groped by professors at parties, or asked out by them. Lucky them. Unlucky me. I imagine that Andrea Mackris (if the allegations are true) found it unfair that she had to tolerate Bill O'Reilly's repulsive fantasies in order to advance professionally. Most people don't have to put up with that sort of thing at all; if the allegations are true, she did, and that's unfair. It is unfair that what other people are able to achieve by normal means, victims of sexual harassment can only achieve by listening to their bosses' bizarre sexual comments, or worse. But it would be doubly unfair to insist that victims of sexual harassment be prepared not just to sit through that stuff, but actually to do things that might cost them their jobs, before we will let them bring suit against those who harass them without writing snarky little columns about their complicity. (And for the record, I would imagine that complaining about Bill O'Reilly to the Fox human resources department might easily cost a person her job.) We should have figured out by now that it is a mistake to insist that victims of crimes behave with perfect propriety in very difficult situations before we will take them seriously. And we should also have figured out that people who abuse their power over their subordinates are not people we should "almost pity".