Certainly, it is discouraging to find that our leaders have serious moral failings – e.g., involving the treatment of black Americans by white, or the treatment of women by men. And it makes sense, when those failings reach a certain level of seriousness, to remove flawed office-holders from their powerful positions.
But when the failings of individuals reflect deep currents in the culture, finding fault with those individuals is not sufficient. In the long run, it may be more important to address the deeper, cultural problem.
Consider in particular how men treat women — an issue lately being raised by women reporting sexual assaults they suffered from men now in prominent positions. In my view, all these reports of sexual misconduct need to be understood in a broader context.
That context is visible in movies from the 30s, 40s, and 50s, which can be seen as reflecting the attitudes of American culture in that era. It is surprising, now, to see what conduct these films seemingly approved in the conduct of a male hero toward a woman he found attractive: a man could be domineering, uninterested in what she felt, focused on his own desires, and still be our hero.
One frequently will see, in these movies from an earlier era, our male hero – a “good” man – force a kiss on a reluctant woman. Consent is not an issue because the man is entitled to go for what he wants – at least for a kiss. (And besides, the films often show the woman’s resistance melting – as if “No!” didn’t really mean no.)
Cultures change slowly, especially when it comes to deep stuff like the relationship between the sexes. And it was not so terribly long ago that American culture approved this pattern: the man being entitled to act on his desires and to be insensitive to the woman’s feelings. Up to a point, of course. But there are always some who will take cultural messages to extremes.
One can imagine how it was for boys to grow up in a culture that trained them to be insensitive – perhaps oblivious – to the impact of their pursuit of their sexual desires on the girls and women who were the objects of their desire.
But now, with women at last speaking out, everyone should know that such treatment inflicts deep and lasting wounds on their victims. One after another, these women who have been sexually assaulted have reported how serious and long-lasting the harm to them has been.
Although doubtless sometimes those men wanted to hurt and humiliate women, I expect that many had little concept of how big a cost they were imposing on their victims.
I have my own personal experience of such a trauma. When I was just 9 years old, I was molested by a grown man in the neighborhood. The experience was seriously injurious to me. Fortunately, that damage has not been lifelong. But, even with healing work, it took years – certainly well into my adulthood – before I could fully overcome the repercussions of that frightening experience this grown man had inflicted on me.
I seriously doubt that he had even a remote idea of the magnitude of the impact his actions would have on the life of this other human being, in whom he’d taken a sexual interest.
Men dominating women, not listening to women, not tuning into women’s feelings. Men feeling entitled to impose their desires on women. All that has been baked deeply into the culture.
In that way, this issue is very similar to the issue of racism.
The picture that appeared in a yearbook – with one man in blackface and the other in KKK garb, judged by the yearbook staff appropriate for including in the medical school yearbook – is not just an occasion for finding fault with individuals.
Such casual racism should also be understood as the unsurprising result of how these young white men were shaped by their culture — a culture where race relations were first formed around the institution of slavery, instilling attitudes later perpetuated by Jim Crow and segregation.
With both these issues – how whites regard blacks, how men regard women – we face a long history of relationships built on gross inequalities of power, with the inevitable result of domination and exploitation.
Our task ultimately is not just to punish the carriers of the diseases infecting our culture, but to heal the diseases themselves.