Only Human

Approximate Reading Time: 4 minutes

Harvard Professor Will Retire After Chronicle Investigation Revealed Harassment Allegations

Since I was a boy I’ve wondered at the ability of people to own up, or not, to their failings and mistakes. Somehow I grew to expect that this is what responsible humans did, usually adults, and I understood it was at great personal cost at times, often in terms of humiliation, shame, and what required many more years of maturity and experience on my part to understand was a painful rendering of one’s personal sense of worth and esteem.

What took me considerably longer to understand – my earlier apprehensions about confessing one’s fault and conscious assumption of responsibility having been more of an intuitive perception, subject to the invisible hand of my parents’ moral suasion (if not, in retrospect, as well, in seemingly inconsequential episodes from time to time in my childhood, the more palpable stern upbraiding I took from my mother) – were the ways in which cultural forces have reshaped the methods and the narratives by which we remove ourselves from the forum of social engagement. We never openly admit guilt, and certainly not in some earnest and transparent heartfelt rendering of such feelings, but we take actions that are signals, or perhaps even more formally signifiers of our acknowledgement of that desultory state of conscience that itself signifies dishonor and mortifying embarrassment.

In the current climate of daily broadcasts of the untoward behavior of male authority figures toward their female subordinates – in plain language the constant stream of accusations of sexual harassment, abuse, if not outright violation, which justifiably goes largely unchallenged as to veracity, because there are inevitably multiple victims testifying – the inevitable response, the usual one, the one that seems almost autonomic in its spontaneity and lack of reflection, is denial of all charges. Inevitably the miscreant attests to his utter lack of such debased character as to behave in a matter contradictory to his innate respect and support of women and his lifelong championship of feminist causes, in spirit, if not in name. Given the preponderance of evidence that is all but sanctioned by the gravity of the charges even in the absence of formal testamentary oath-taking by the victims, there is a farcical quality to the defense offered by the offender. It would, indeed, be funny, if the circumstances and the repercussions of the prior acts did not redound so disastrously on the victims, while perpetrators too often retain their powerful tenure.

In the fullness of time, there are never worse repercussions, despite allegedly exhaustive inquiries and what is lamely often put under the rubric, as it is here, of “full and fair process of review.” Severe penalties are defined. If they are ever imposed, they seem never to hit the headlines with the same force as the original exposure, which usually is the culmination of years, if not decades, as in this case, of abuse and concealment (if not outright contemporaneous dismissal or minimalization, in those rare instances that victims brave the virtual institutional skepticism of accusations made at the time of the violation). As the promised new order of better vigilance and active fostering of an atmosphere and environment of safety and protection of the interests of vulnerable populations, but especially women who remain largely in positions of subordination and powerlessness, has yet to be established, the question remains about how seriously society is willing to punish, never mind speak of the remote potentiality of reform and rehabilitation, and vilify offenders in such a way that the prospect of the depth and extent of humiliation once publicly exposed will be sufficient to deter the behavior that occasions it.

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2 thoughts on “
Only Human

  1. The prospect of humiliation has rarely been a deterrent to inappropriate behavior..whether that behavior is what is discussed above, or robbing a bank, or selling drugs….human nature is, I believe, similarly engaged in all of those types of activities. Rehabilitation, through professional help, combined with appropriate punishment (maybe more like Scandanavian prison, where the doors aren’t locked, but you are expected to remain on-site and repay society), might be more more effective.
    But unlikely to happen in this country, where vengeance is primary, not rehabilitation.

    • I hope you read nothing I said as an assertion of the belief that somehow the prospect of humiliation was a deterrent to any kind of behavior by any miscreant in any circumstance, from children to adults, from rapists to candy thieves. As usual, I was being long-winded (though I’ll never agree to the proposition that it is unnecessarily so) about something I could have said much more briefly and straightforwardly. It’s simply not in human nature universally to have the prospect of any repercussions for any act, however painful the repercussions, however harmless the act (except possibly to the perpetrator), be a deterrent to acting. It is further, even more presumptuous – as I tried to suggest, perhaps too subtly – to expect that even the application of any punishment, short of terminal action, will serve to prevent a recurrence, and likely not even a sense of remorse, in the most inveterate of damaged humans. Dr. Johnson did say the prospect of the gallows in a fortnight has a way of concentrating the mind. I don’t believe he said it had a way, as well, of purging the soul of darkness.

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