There is a reason that we wake up every morning to new reports of accusations against men in positions of power. It is not that the sad phenomenon of sexual harassment or violence is new – in fact, many of these accusations relate to incidents decades ago. It is also not because the women who are sharing their experiences of abuse are more courageous now than they were last week or last year.
The reason is that we have reached one of a series of tipping points. As recently as 2014, when a number of allegations of inappropriate and illegal actions by legendary comedian Bill Cosby became public, his accusers were treated as such accusers have routinely been treated: variously as complicit in their victimizations, as liars, as exaggerators, as willing partners who alleged assault only when the “relationship” went sour.
What has changed in this short time is a critical mass of people – women and men, as well as media, employers and the consumers and voters upon whose beneficence the alleged perpetrators have depended – have adopted a new willingness to believe women’s narratives of harassment and assault. This change has happened, in the context of social change, with startling suddenness.
This has created a tipping point of its own. Knowing that they are more likely to be believed than further victimized, a vast number of women have found strength in their numbers and, sensing the social change at hand, have stepped up to share their experiences.
The unprecedented acknowledgements by millions of women that they have been subjected to sexual harassment, assault or worse are taking place not only in Hollywood and Washington. As the #MeToo campaign is demonstrating, many, if not most, women have experienced something on the spectrum of gender-rooted harassment or violence. The incidents have caused unique effects in each instance, on each woman, effects that range from stunted career development and self-image issues to debilitating, lasting psychological trauma. So, put mildly, these are not good news stories.
Yet something good could come from this – indeed, it can’t help but. Our society is finally having an open and frank discussion about these issues. Yet another tipping point is surely upon us. The public perception of appropriate behaviour toward women (and, to extrapolate, respectful behaviour between all people, especially those in positions of vulnerability or subordination) has changed and will continue to change as we navigate this public discourse.
Again, this is not a good news story. In an ideal world, there would have been no such incidents that led us to this point. Yet, like the reconciliation process taking place between indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians, the fact that these things did happen, and that they cannot be undone, demands that a frank public reckoning take place and that we identify ways to hasten a better future. That we are doing so is a good thing.
These are not the sorts of topics we like to reflect on at the holidays, and yet it is something appropriate that this issue is top of the newscast as we approach Chanukah.
This holiday has, among other meanings, the idea of kindling light in the deepest part of winter. Each of the women who has come forward about her experiences has lit a single flame. Together, these lights have become a force against individual and collective darkness.