BIDLACK: Cases of sexual misconduct warrant fairness as well as justice

Author: Hal Bidlack - December 13, 2017 - Updated: December 13, 2017

Hal Bidlack

As I type these words, the good people of Alabama are going to the polls to decide who will become their next United States Senator. By the time you read these words, you will know whether the folks from Huntsville to Mobile, from Tuscaloosa to Columbus, have picked a man whom a number of women have accused of truly vile behavior, or whether a Democrat was seen as the lesser of two evils in one of the darkest red states in the nation. We are in the midst of a sweeping social change in this country, where men in high places guilty of barbaric behaviors are getting at least some degree of comeuppance. The question before the nation now is whether those men, and the countless others who are not in high places, will finally have to confront their boorish/vile/criminal behaviors committed over the course of years, or more likely, decades. I should warn you, gentle reader, that at the end of this essay I won’t have any answers. I haven’t figured out what should or shouldn’t be done

When the #metoo movement first burst into the public consciousness, I thought about my life and had to say, well, not me. I’ve never been sexually harassed. And that is precisely why, I think, so many men are stunningly clueless about the breadth and depth of this problem. I regret being blind, even if accidentally so, for so long. The hostility toward and harassment of women is pandemic.

With the Harvey Weinstein revelations the dam burst, and stories hidden away in the wounded psyche of countless women (and men, of course) found the light of day. We then saw Al Franken, Kevin Spacey, Trent Franks and Matt Lauer and many more, find their behaviors illuminated and in public view. The New York Times ran a story recently that detailed no less than 42 men, accused of sexual misconduct, who had to resign or otherwise give up their power. And, I think, that is a good thing. As a father and as a husband, I want such people gone from the public stage.

But that brings up an awkward and troubling question. What’s fair? I suspect there may have been a degree of false equivalency going on here. As a former military cop, I was used to dealing with violators whose crimes determined the punishment. The worse the offense, the harsher the penalty. I worry that we may be creeping toward an absolutism that is both dangerous and unfair — from the most minor to the most egregious, you lose your job.

Now, I want to state this very clearly — I am not saying sexual harassment is ever acceptable. But I proffer that perhaps, we should look at each case on the merits and not on the partisanship. We have a president whom at least 15 women have accused of very aggressive forms of harassment, and the White House has stated they are all liars. We’ve seen others (e.g., President George H.W. Bush) accused of behavior that is truly unacceptable, but does not rise to the (at least legal) level of what Mr. Trump has been accused of. Shall the same sanction apply to a person accused of pursuing 14 year old girls be applied to a person who tells an inappropriate joke?  All too often today, in our hyper-partisan world, we seem to be deciding the guilt and punishment of those accused on the basic of political beliefs rather than the actual degree of vileness involved.

It took me quite a while to write that last paragraph, because I want to make a point about false equivalency without for a moment appearing to defend dreadful behaviors. I worry whether my conclusion that Al Franken should resign is from the magnitude of his violations, or a desire to ensure the moral high ground for the political party I find myself aligned with. I do not find it credible that a group of unconnected women would leap into a vast conspiracy that brings their intimate private lives into the public arena in hopes of bringing down a president or a senator, or a candidate. I believe the women.

And so, I awkwardly end this essay with no certainty on what ought to be done, either collectively or in each case. But I also am not a woman who has been harassed repeatedly over the years, so I’m not at all sure I should be deciding things. Not me.

Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.