Of all the head-scratchers to emerge during #MeToo, one of the most bewildering, to me, is the “but he didn’t harass me” statement of support.
CBS Chairman and CEO Les Moonves is the latest subject of such statements, after a New Yorker story by Ronan Farrow last week spelled out allegations of harassment and intimidation against Moonves from six women. The accusers describe forcible kissing and touching during meetings and threats of career retaliation.
Moonves released a statement saying, “I recognize that there were times decades ago when I may have made some women uncomfortable by making advances. Those were mistakes, and I regret them immensely. But I always understood and respected — and abided by the principle — that ‘no’ means ‘no,’ and I have never misused my position to harm or hinder anyone’s career.”
On Monday, CBS announced Moonves will remain in his position while an outside counsel investigates the charges against him.
Also on Monday, Stephen Colbert, host of CBS’ “The Late Show,” addressed the allegations against his boss. “He has stood by us when people were mad at me, and I like working for him,” Colbert said during his show. “But accountability is meaningless unless it’s for everybody — whether it’s the leader of a network or the leader of the free world.”
That’s a statement I understand: Acknowledge that someone in your corner is accused of reprehensible behavior. Make clear that, while you don’t know everything that happened or what will happen next, reprehensible behavior shouldn’t be tolerated — in any setting.
The statements I don’t understand are those that say, in effect, “He didn’t harass me, so I doubt he harassed anyone.”
“I fully support Leslie Moonves and the statement he made,” Jo Ann Ross, chief advertising revenue officer at CBS, tweeted. “My experience with him on a professional and personal basis has never had any hint of the behavior this story refers to. Leslie has always been an advocate and mentor to me, showing me the deepest respect at all times.”
“As an executive with 20 years of experience in the entertainment industry, sexual harassment is never something I would tolerate,” Angelica Rosas McDaniel, head of CBS Daytime, tweeted. “I developed under the leadership of Leslie Moonves, and the relationship has been one of respect and support, in an environment where talent and hard work rise to the top.”
From actress Lynda Carter: “Les Moonves is a close friend. I’ve known him for 40 years. He is a kind, decent and honorable man. I believe him and I believe in him.”
In the context of a trial or investigation, character witnesses provide context about the accused, helping establish patterns of behavior, or the absence of such patterns. They can help establish guilt or innocence and, if necessary, an appropriate punishment.
Outside of a formal investigation or trial, though, such statements do little more than shame the accusers for coming forward. They cast doubt on women who made dangerous, difficult decisions to speak out and, in so doing, make such decisions even more dangerous and difficult for other survivors.
We should know better.
Attempting to introduce doubt about a person’s credibility, simply because that person experienced something you did not, is small-minded and, frankly, a misunderstanding of human behavior.
We know that people who make bad, actionable choices also, in other times and in other settings, make good, non-actionable choices.
If an employee embezzles funds from her company, she doesn’t get to prove her innocence by pointing out all the funds she left unembezzled.
If an employee is caught stealing laptops from the fourth floor, he doesn’t get to clear his good name by pointing to the laptops he didn’t steal from the fifth floor.
A person doesn’t have to harass every human he or she comes in contact with to be capable of harassment. We know this. (Don’t we?)
We have a nasty habit, though, of reflexively disbelieving people who have different life experiences than ours. We’re quite adept at tuning out people’s stories when they don’t line up nicely with the stories we’ve been telling ourselves.
We ought to examine that.
We ought to listen when people tell us what they’ve been through — even if we don’t want to hear it, even if we don’t want to imagine it, even if we never saw it coming.
Only then can we have an honest conversation about forging a better path ahead.
Heidi Stevens is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Readers may email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.