Sometimes you have to take a step back, remove yourself from the moment, and try to ground yourself in what is true, elevated, even eternal. Let’s do that.
The week has lent itself to a feeling of instability. The president has deliberately added to the rancor and tension of his nation’s daily life, lurching in his tweets from mischief to malice to a kind of psychopathology—personal attacks, insinuations, videos from a group labeled racist by the British government. You always want to say he has reached peak crazy, but you know there’s a higher peak on the horizon. What will Everest look like? He has no idea how to be president.
More men of the media have fallen in the reckoning over sexual abuse, most famously a bright, humorous, ratings-busting veteran anchorman, who reportedly had a switch on his desk that locked his office door so he could molest the women he’d trapped inside. He had no idea how to be a man.
Here is something to ground us in the good: Pope John Paul II’s 1995 Letter to Women, sent to the Fourth World Conference on Women, in Beijing. As a document it has more or less fallen through history’s cracks. But it’s deeply pertinent to this moment and was written with pronounced warmth by a man who before he became a priest hoped to be a playwright. Here is what he said:
You would never be so low as to abuse women if you knew what they are and have been in the history of humanity: “Women have contributed to that history as much as men and, more often than not, they did so in much more difficult conditions. I think particularly of those women who loved culture and art, and devoted their lives to them in spite of the fact that they were frequently at a disadvantage” in education and opportunity. Women have been “underestimated, ignored and not given credit for their intellectual contributions.” Only a small part of their achievements have been documented, and yet humanity knows that it “owes a debt” to the “great, immense, feminine ‘tradition.’ ” But, John Paul exclaimed, “how many women have been and continue to be valued more for their physical appearance than for their skill, their professionalism, their intellectual abilities, their deep sensitivity; in a word, the very dignity of their being!”
In a highly personal tone—the italics are his—he offers his appreciation: “Thank you, women who work! You are present and active in every area of life—social, economic, cultural, artistic and political.” You “unite reason and feeling” and establish “economic and political structures ever more worthy of humanity.”
He thanked women who are mothers, daughters and wives: “Thank you, every woman, for the simple fact of being a woman.”
Women, he observed, have “in every time and place” suffered abuse, in part because of “cultural conditioning,” which has been “an obstacle” to their progress. “Women’s dignity has often been unacknowledged and their prerogatives misrepresented; they have often been relegated to the margins of society and even reduced to servitude. This has prevented women from truly being themselves, and it has resulted in a spiritual impoverishment of humanity.” Poor thinking and cold hearts have contributed to the conditioning; some blame “has belonged to not just a few members of the Church.”
Members of the Christian faith must look both back and forward. To free women “from every kind of exploitation and domination,” we must learn from “the attitude of Jesus Christ himself,” who transcended “the established norms of his own culture” and “treated women with openness, respect, acceptance and tenderness.”
There is “an urgent need to achieve real equality in every area; equal pay for equal work, protection for working mothers, fairness in career advancements, equality of spouses with regard to family rights.”
And listen to this alarm—again, from 22 years ago: John Paul hit hard on “the long and degrading history . . . of violence against women in the area of sexuality”: “The time has come to condemn . . . the types of sexual violence which frequently have women for their object, and to pass laws which effectively defend them from such violence.”
There is more, and I urge you to read it, but it is a very modern document, a feminist statement in the best sense. When a friend sent it this week and I reread it, what I thought was: If all the now-famous sexual abusers had ever pondered such thoughts (as opposed to parroting them on the air before flipping the switch and locking the door) and considered questions of true equality, they never would have done what they did. They wouldn’t have been able to think of women as things, as mere commodities to be used for imperial pleasure. They would have had to consider their dignity.
At the heart of the current scandals is a simple disrespect and disregard for women, and an inability to love them.
A few things on my mind as the scandals progress: Friends, especially of my generation, fear that things will get carried away—innocent men will be railroaded, the workplace will be swept with some crazy new Puritanism. A female journalist wryly reflected: “This is America—what’s worth doing is worth overdoing.”
This would be bad. America takes place in the office, and anywhere America takes place there will be the drama of men and women. It is not wrong to fear it will become a dry, repressed, politically correct zone, no longer human.
But the way I see it, what’s happening is a housecleaning that’s long overdue. A big broom is sweeping away bad behaviors and bad ways of being. It’s not pleasant. If you’re taking joy in it, there’s something wrong with you.
The trick is to leave the place cleaner, not colder.
Common sense will help. Offices aren’t for 10-year-olds but for adults. Deep down you know what abuse is: You can tell when someone’s taking or demanding what isn’t his. By adulthood you should also know what friendliness, appreciation and attraction are. But it comes down to whether someone is taking or demanding what isn’t his.
As for unjust accusations, it is true—they will come. Just accusations used to be ignored; in the future unjust ones will be heard.
Here the press will be more important than ever. They have just broken a scandal through numbers and patterns—numbers of accusers and patterns of behavior. If journalists stick to this while also retaining their deep skepticism and knowledge of human agendas, things will stay pretty straight. So far, American journalists have been sober and sophisticated, and pursued justice without looking for scalps. Human-resources departments will have to operate in the same way—with seriousness and knowledge of human nature.
My concern is something else. It is that young women, girls in high school, young women in college and just starting out, are going to have too heightened a sense of danger in the workplace, too great a sense of threat.
But there are more good men and women out there than bad.
There are more good ones than bad.
Know balance. Have faith.