Moral Arithmetic and Finding Justice | Vol. 5 / No. 4.1

Photo: North Charleston, CC BY-SA 2.0

A couple weeks ago, someone asked me a question that I hadn’t been asked before. Regarding the harassment allegations against Louis C.K. and his subsequent removal from various projects, he asked, “What do you want to happen to him? When do you think he will be punished enough?” And I had to answer, “I don’t know.”

The facts that we live in a world that is more secular than it has been for thousands of years and that our justice system doesn’t have a good way of addressing sexual harassment and sexual assault (particularly when incidents are years old) mean that we don’t really have access to traditional means of punishment for these cases. The perpetrators are probably not going to pledge their lives to the church as penance for their actions, but we’re also likely not going to see many abuse survivors from the recent spate of allegations receive any legal or civil recourse. Public stocks are somewhat out of fashion, and even our superhero movies are now trying to show us how vigilantism is bad. Plus all the ice caps are melting, so we can’t even send anyone floating off on an ice floe, destined to be separated from society. So in this day and age, we have to make do with public naming and shaming (which comes with its own drawbacks), our own, personal sense of justice, and what we can agree on as public justice. Which is where a loooooot of moral arithmetic and arbitrary line-setting comes in.

This is a concept I come back to a lot, and I’ve written about it before with Johnny Depp and Joss Whedon.  The long and short of it is, I don’t have a good solution for separating art from artist (if we should) a good bright line for when we should stop supporting someone, or a good sense of what adequate punishment for their actions would be. And it doesn’t seem like anyone else does, either. I’ve already seen people who were eager to decry Roy Moore and Harvey Weinstein insist that Al Franken is too important as a Democrat in the Senate to ask him to resign. Mel Gibson is currently on a redemption tour, writing off his anti-Semitic, racist, and sexist comments as a “nervous breakdown.” The world is madness.

So, to the best of my abilities, I’m going to set down what I see as some guidelines for helping everyone navigate the tricky waters of secular, non-legal punishment, setting our arbitrary lines, living with ourselves after, and eventually reintroducing perpetrators back into society. This is all just *my opinion*, so please note I’ve not yet been granted omniscience or omnipotence in order to know all and order justice carried out. (Also, if you have a different opinion or think I’ve stuck my foot in it somewhere, please let me know!)

Guideline #1: Our reactions should be victim-centered, and trauma-centered.

Do you know what isn’t a good reaction to finding out about years-old sexual assault or harassment incidents? “Why didn’t he/she/they come forward sooner?” Do you know what is a good reaction? “How can we best help him/her/them?” Whatever our personal feelings are regarding various incidents, the people whose opinions and feelings matter most in the situation are the people that it happened to. We need to be doing our best to support the survivors, and we need, to the best of our abilities, to keep the desires of the survivors in mind as we pursue justice. Now, this isn’t always possible: lawyers will often prosecute offenders even when their victims do not want to testify or want the charges dropped, because it is in the best interests of the public that the offender be off the streets. Likewise, a survivor may feel that a perpetrator losing his job or something similar is too much punishment, but we may feel that for the sake of any female coworkers or employees, it’s in the best interests of women in general if he loses his position. But we need to make sure we are centering the survivors foremost in our thoughts, and that we are focusing on what they need to heal.

Guideline #2: We should try really, really hard to avoid splitting hairs.

Our legal system is based on the idea that some crimes are worse than others, and sometimes our workplace punishments have to be as well. After all, one would hope that the punishment for embezzling millions of dollars would be worse than the punishment for stealing paperclips. But when it comes to sexual harassment and sexual assault, we have to be really, really careful not to set things up as a series of comparisons where we try to decide what act is bad enough to warrant resignation or firing. Molesting a 14-year-old is objectively worse (to me, at least, as well as to the US legal system) than groping the rear end of a grown woman. But I don’t want a Senator who has done either. I don’t want to split hairs between what is “worse” assault or harassment—I don’t want Senators who have committed sexual assault or sexual harassment. This feels like something close to a zero-tolerance policy situation—let’s just not fucking harass people.

Guideline #3: Whatever the punishment is, it should involve a diminishing of power.

Sexual assault and sexual harassment are, despite their names, not really about sex or sexual desire. They are about power and control. That’s why most of the “sex addict”-tinged apologies ring pretty false to me. If these men just wanted sex, there were a lot of consensual ways they could obtain it. Hell, they’re all pretty wealthy, they could even fly to Amsterdam and pay for it. (Though that also has a lot of its own problems!) Sexual assault and sexual harassment are about power and control. And one thing that almost all of the men who are currently standing accused of harassment and assault have in common is being in a position of power. In Louis C.K.’s “apology that on second glance doesn’t contain an apology,” C.K. seems to both acknowledge the power he held over his targets and kinda revel in it. He acknowledges that he inadvertently (or at least he claims inadvertently) took advantage of his position and prestige in his dealings with these women. But then he also throws in that these women admired him a lot, and repeats that three times for good measure.

Now, I genuinely don’t want Louis C.K.’s life to be ruined. But I honestly never really want him to be in a position of power over a female comedian, ever again. Whether that means he doesn’t get to run shows anymore, whether it means that he takes more background roles, whether it means that he adjusts his production company so that he’s got a lot of checks on his power… I don’t know. But I know that the original acts happened because he wanted power and control, and so giving him that power again is not a good idea.

Guideline #4: The punishment should be as consistent as possible across jobs and across party lines.

I genuinely like Al Franken as a senator, and even as a comedy writer. He’s funny, intelligent, and willing to hold people’s feet to the fire during Senate questioning. It will suck for him to leave the Senate. But it’s also necessary. Especially if we want Roy Moore to never get his grubby mitts on the same Senate.

When it comes to punishing sexual harassment and assault, we have to put our money where our mouths are. Yes, it was way easier when the people getting accused of sexual assault and harassment were people we didn’t like, like Donald Trump, Roy Moore, and Harvey Weinstein. Yes, it sucks when the people getting accused are our cultural heroes, like Louis C.K., George Takei, and Al Franken. But we have to be consistent. Sexual harassment can’t only be a bad thing when the other party does it. And if, as Democrats, we want to have any moral high ground (like, say, when we’re demanding an investigation into the double-digit sexual assault and harassment complaints against the president) then we have to be as ready and willing to police our own party as we are to police our opponents.

When police commissioners are defending their departments against accusations of racism and brutality, they keep trotting out the line that the officers involved are just “a few bad apples.” But that leaves off the second, and important, half of the saying. It’s supposed to be, “a few bad apples spoil the bunch.” That means that letting perpetrators stay in the party, stay in power, and generally, stay around is going to poison the rest of us. If we don’t want the rot to spread, we need to separate the apples.

Guideline #5: The perpetrator should provide actual apologies, and at least present as if they are actually remorseful for their actions.

So far, C.K. and Franken are the only ones to really approach an apology in their reactions to accusations. Hell, Joe Biden can’t even manage to properly apologize for how he acted about Anita Hill testifying about sexual harassment from someone else. (Message to Uncle Joe: Anita Hill isn’t accepting your “I’m sorry if you were offended” bullshit. Apologize properly if you wanna run in 2020, my man.) But I honestly don’t think any of the men accused should be let off the hook until they give a full, and as close as they can manage to real, apology. One that includes language like “I’m sorry” and “I apologize” and doesn’t include language like “if they saw/perceive/felt that way.”

Guideline #6: There should be education and acts of atonement.

Now to be fair, in general I don’t really believe in perpetrator education or re-education. The studies on its usefulness aren’t super positive, and the cases where someone truly, genuinely did not know that what they were doing was sexual assault or sexual harassment are rare. That being said, I think that education can help perpetrators put a name to what they have been doing, recognize patterns of behavior, and learn the tools they need to self-police, if they are willing to do so.

I feel like there should also be acts to atone. In general, I think this is something that should be driven by the survivors. What do they feel they need their perpetrator to do or say? Do they actually want them to do or say anything?

In general for these wealthier perpetrators, I think donations to sexual assault and domestic violence advocacy groups, education programs, victims’ funds, and the like are an excellent (if sometimes empty) gesture. One thing that we should not do? Ask or order the perpetrator to volunteer time at a sexual assault or domestic violence program. Those programs do not want perps volunteering for them. Don’t do it.

If Al Franken is going to stay in the Senate (I know, I keep picking on him. That one freaking hurts, okay? I wanted better) then he needs to be spending a lot of his time between now and the next election helping an awesome, firebrand of a female legislator get into position to take his place. He needs to be doing whatever he can to make sure that he is going to leave the Senate a better place than it was during his presence.

Guideline #7: They shouldn’t be able to profit from their crimes.

Much as I love Chloe Moretz, Charlie Day, and John Malkovich, I’m really glad that Louis C.K.’s film I Love You Daddy was pulled from distribution, because as far as I can tell it was a thinly veiled gloss over not only his misdeeds but those of Woody Allen’s. And call me old fashioned, but I don’t feel like you get to harass women, make a movie about harassing women, and then get to make money off of making that movie.

Guideline #8: Their acts should be remembered.

Just as I talk about remembering and contextualizing the crimes or misdeeds of figures like Johnny Depp or Joss Whedon when we are talking about their work, we should be remembering and contextualizing the misdeeds of all of these men when we are talking about their deeds, their accomplishments, and their futures. People do make mistakes. Lives do continue. But the passage of time alone is not enough to make up for horrible acts.


So there you have it, my guide, such as it is, for navigating the murky waters of dealing with perpetrators, and trying to find justice when there is no clear path to it.


Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week In Tomorrow. When she’s not trying to help people navigate the murky waters just off the coast of the land of assault, she studies gender in popular culture.


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