Here’s a confession: I feel bad for a lot of the men caught out by the #MeToo movement.
Not all of them — not Harvey Weinstein or former CBS chief executive Leslie Moonves — but the slightly less powerful, less overtly predatory schmoes whose gross behavior was tacitly accepted by those around them until, suddenly, it wasn’t. I can only imagine how disorienting it must be to have the rules change on you so fast, to have your reputation obliterated in an instant, to be suddenly unable to do the work that gives you your identity. Shame, in my experience, feels even worse than injustice.
So I am not unsympathetic to those who want to begin the fraught conversation about how these men — and, now, a couple of women — might redeem themselves and re-enter public life.
Before we do that, though, we should clarify a few things. It’s one thing to say that people who have harmed others, and feel remorse, deserve an opportunity to make amends, and shouldn’t be pariahs forever. Most people shouldn’t be defined by the worst thing they’ve ever done.
There’s a difference, however, between arguing that someone merits a second chance, and insisting that he didn’t do anything all that wrong in the first place, that his accusers are exaggerating, or that his humiliation makes him the real victim.
Maybe this distinction seems obvious, but recently I’ve seen it elided again and again. Last Friday, I flew to Los Angeles to appear on “Real Time With Bill Maher.” Maher’s closing monologue was a call for Al Franken, who resigned from the Senate in January amid allegations of groping, to return to politics. It’s fair to argue that the things Franken was accused of — pretending to molest a sleeping woman while posing for a photograph, grabbing other women’s butts — aren’t irredeemable sins, and that he shouldn’t be permanently banished from politics.
Instead, Maher disparaged the credibility of the women who spoke out against Franken, and mocked their complaints. “You know, when you’re a politician, being touchy-feely is kind of part of the job,” he said. (At one point I interrupted him, which you’re not supposed to do in that segment; it was awkward.)
On its own this wouldn’t be worth writing about, but in the following days other high-profile men have made arguments about #MeToo’s unfairness. Norm Macdonald, the comedian, told the The Hollywood Reporter that he was glad the movement has slowed down. “It used to be, ‘One hundred women can’t be lying,’ ” he said. “And then it became, ‘One woman can’t lie.’ And that became, ‘I believe all women.’ And then you’re like, ‘What?’ ”
This caused a PR tempest — Macdonald’s planned appearance on “The Tonight Show” was canceled — and he compounded it by telling Howard Stern that you’d “have to have Down syndrome” not to feel bad for sexual abuse victims, comments he then had to apologize for on “The View.” Suddenly the plight of the #MeToo men was back in the news, and with it a discussion about oversensitivity and censoriousness on the social justice left.
Also this week, Harper’s Magazine published a heart-rending, confused and maddening essay by former public radio host John Hockenberry. Appearing in the magazine’s October issue, it is bleakly titled “Exile.”
In August 2017 — months before the Harvey Weinstein story broke — Hockenberry departed his job as host of “The Takeaway,” a morning news show on public radio. At the time, his reason for leaving was unclear, but in December, the writer Suki Kim published a story in The Cut in which several women accused Hockenberry of sexual harassment. (Kim also reported her own uncomfortable experiences with him.) According to a report by WNYC, which co-produces and airs “The Takeaway,” a confidential allegation of harassment had been lodged against him before his contract was terminated, and for years, people he worked with had warned station executives that Hockenberry “bullied colleagues, creating a hostile work environment.”
Public vilification was clearly traumatic for Hockenberry. He writes of going from “someone recognized on the streets of New York City as a journalist, author, and advocate for people with disabilities” — he is a paraplegic — to a man terrified of public reproach. At some points in the essay, he takes responsibility for bad behavior toward female colleagues, some of whom he propositioned. At others he explains it away, ascribing it to out-of-fashion Byronic romanticism. But the most frustrating parts of “Exile” are where he casts himself as the victim of the women who spoke out against him.
“Only one of my accusers reached out or responded to my heartfelt queries,” he writes. (Why would they?) Elsewhere he describes his children’s experience of his disgrace as a “pain I wish on no one, not even my accusers.” He invokes his children repeatedly, furious at the toll the scandal is taking on them. Maybe he behaved offensively toward women, he allows, but asks, “Is a life sentence of unemployment without possibility of furlough, the suffering of my children, and financial ruin an appropriate consequence?”
Luckily, his unemployment isn’t total; he is writing for a major magazine after enduring nine months of obscurity. But in the nearly 7,000 words of his essay, as he demands that we consider his misery and embarrassment, he never really grapples with the misery and embarrassment he caused, never thinks deeply about how he affected the lives of the women who changed jobs to escape his advances. Similarly, Maher mourns the loss of Franken in the Senate — as do I — but seems to lacks empathy for the woman who is discombobulated by suddenly feeling the hand of a man she admires on her backside.
Reading Hockenberry’s essay, it hit me: I feel sorry for a lot of these men, but I don’t think they feel sorry for women, or think about women’s experience much at all. And maybe that’s why the discussion about #MeToo and forgiveness never seems to go anywhere, because men aren’t proposing paths for restitution. They’re asking why women won’t give them absolution.
I’m not interested in seeing these #MeToo castoffs engage in Maoist struggle sessions to purge their patriarchal impulses. But maybe they’d find it easier to resurrect their careers if it seemed like they’d reflected on why women are so furious in the first place, and perhaps even offered ideas to make things better. What ideas? I don’t know, but they’re the ones who are supposed to be irreplaceably creative, and they’ve got time on their hands.
Michelle Goldberg has been an Opinion columnist since 2017. She is the author of several books about politics, religion and women’s rights, and was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for public service in 2018 for reporting on workplace sexual harassment issues.