Al Franken the serial groper. Al Franken the scapegoat.
History proceeds clumsily. Innocent people — or “innocently guilty” people, like the junior senator from Minnesota — often get unfairly hung out to dry. Should he have to resign? As far as I can tell, his alleged sexual wrongdoings over the years consist of three butt grabs, several uninvited kisses, a breast grope and a waist squeeze.
There may be more, of course, and they add up to something beyond what could be called innocent mistakes or misunderstandings. An adolescent sense of entitlement seems to be at work here, but . . . this is the moral standard of a Congress open for purchase by corporate lobbyists? Who among us (Roy? Donald?) hasn’t committed transgressions worse than the above? And shouldn’t a person’s positive achievements be factored into the severity of his punishment, at least when no permanent damage has occurred?
Yet . . . yet . . .
We live in a deeply problematic and unfair world, but suddenly social awareness has solidified around the wrongness of sexual abuse, so much so that powerful men are feeling the sting of accountability for stupid and cruel behavior that until recently seemed consequence-free.
I get the outrage, which is a release of decades — centuries — of the hopeless despair of so many women, who have been powerless even to stop, let alone get justice for, sexual abuse, harassment, assault. We live in a deeply problematic and unfair world, but suddenly social awareness has solidified around the wrongness of sexual abuse, so much so that powerful men are feeling the sting of accountability for stupid and cruel behavior that until recently seemed consequence-free.
I get that Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who has long stood up courageously against the sexual assault that permeates the U.S. military, led the way in calling for Franken to resign and calling for zero tolerance of all forms of sexual harassment.
But I also get the counter-outrage: the support for Franken (including “feminists for Franken”); the calls for him to reconsider his resignation; the outcry that zero tolerance for minor transgressions, sexual or otherwise, is morally simplistic and can quickly devolve into destructive self-righteousness that only makes matters worse; and the demand for some sort of due process, e.g., convening the Senate Ethics Committee to consider the accusations against Franken.
What’s clear is that this is a moment of social change. I believe we should value everyone who is a participant in it, willingly or otherwise. Real social change leaves no one out.
So . . . should Al Franken resign?
As Masha Gessen wrote last month in the New Yorker, “maybe ‘Should Al Franken resign?’ is the wrong question.
“The question frames the conversation in terms of retribution, but it is not possible to hold to account every man who has ever behaved disrespectfully and disgustingly toward a woman. Nor even every senator, or every comedian. And, even if it were possible to punish every single one of them, what would be accomplished? Punishment, especially when it is delayed, is not a very effective deterrent.
“. . . the real issue here,” she goes on to point out, is “the power imbalance that allows some men to take women hostage using sex. Franken, from what we know, was not such a man.”
Harvey Weinstein, on the other hand, held women sexually hostage with the power he wielded over their careers. So did Roger Ailes — and so many others. But even they, and all those who preceded them in such behavior, and worse, weren’t acting simply as bad individuals. They were acting in a social context. a.k.a., the patriarchy, in which male sexuality mattered more than female humanity.
Rape, indeed, was once a property crime. “The idea that rape is a crime against a woman, and specifically a crime against a woman's body, is relatively new,” writes Emily Crockett at Vox. “For most of human history, rape has been treated as a property crime against a woman's husband or father, since they effectively owned her.”
This is the horrific social context that has suddenly stopped coddling the tainted celebrities of the 21st century, some of whom have lost their careers because accusers have finally felt empowered to tell their stories. But for the most part the national conversation about it has not moved beyond the bad behavior of individual men and the need to punish them for what they did. I keep believing that we can move more deeply into the matter.
Consider, for instance, how the tiny indigenous village of Hollow Water, Manitoba, confronted, back in the 1980s, its own long-festering sex abuse problem, as described in Rupert Ross’s book Returning to the Teachings. The sex abuse was the hidden part of the problem, which manifested in alcoholism and various forms of violence, as well as the profound alienation of the community’s teenagers.
Inflicting punishment on the perpetrators of various crimes, the Western way, did nothing but further destabilize this fragile community. The situation became so desperate that a group of community members finally came together and started talking.
Several years ago, after I heard Ross and Burma Bushie, a resident of Hollow Water, speak at Des Moines University, I wrote : “And at the core of it all was the circle: the whole. They sat with one another in peace circles and talked with raw honesty. They sat with the injured and those who caused harm. As Ross put it, ‘Their definition of justice sounded more like our definition of healing.’ It was about healing, about reconnecting people with one another and their surroundings. The Hollow Water team had made lifelong commitments to heal their community and supplant the Western replacement legacy of punishment-based justice and welfare bureaucracies, which only intensified the wreckage.”
The global restorative justice movement emerged from indigenous communities, such as Hollow Water, beginning the process of healing themselves by reclaiming the tribal circle, which included truth-telling and forgiveness. Accountability is a far more difficult process to undergo than punishment, but it empowers everyone, both victim and perpetrator. Indeed, claiming accountability turns perpetrators into healers.
All of which brings me back to Al Franken, and why his resignation seems to accomplish little more than fueling the momentum of revenge. It further splinters the political culture but does nothing to set free its collective secrets.
And as long as punishment rules, the patriarchy remains intact.