I was in a meeting recently discussing the take down of Harvey Weinstein and others accused of sexual harassment, and the rise of the #metoo campaign. We were freely exchanging opinions about these trends in culture, except for several men who declined to add to the conversation. When I asked them about their thoughts on the matter, and they replied that there wasn’t anything they were willing to add; because, they said, the truth was that they were only allowed to agree with the perspectives already in the room. As much I as prodded to elicit other points of view, they remained firm. They weren’t angry, resentful, or upset about it. They were just unwilling to risk a damn word.
As a mediator, I find this trend troublesome, but not uncommon. And though I am extremely supportive of the rigor in culture right now that calls out racism, demands an end to sexual harassment, or advocates for the fair treatment of all religious groups, I find it extremely problematic when this passion hardens into dogma, and the impulse to liberate becomes its own form of oppression. I am particularly aware that in our zeal to rid culture of these forms of abuse, we now throw due process to the wind, treating every offense, regardless of severity, as a high crime, and every person, regardless of true culpability, as already guilty. (Unless, of course, you are on the right of the political spectrum in which case, sexual harassment hasn’t even made it onto the national agenda).
Ken Wilber has written extensively about the ironic way in which the impulse towards inclusion and tolerance in pluralistic culture quickly becomes most intolerant and repressive when its politically correct orthodoxies aren’t adhered to. In other words, he argues that our attempts at inclusion quickly become exclusive when people disagree with us, our desire for egalitarianism becomes hierarchical when our views are challenged, and our attempts at justice go only so far as to extend to those whom we approve of. Ken reminds us that the ability to truly include multiple perspectives in our thinking and conversations is an achievement of human development, and when threatened, we all collapse into seeing just one truth. It is the way our brain works. When there is threat, complexity and nuance downgrades quickly to black and white thinking. It makes it easier to act.
With that in mind, how do we as a collective make change, finally giving attention, empathy, and real support to those who have suffered from sexual assault and harassment, while still creating room for additional considerations? How do we come to deeply understand how rampant and injurious it has been in so many contexts, while still finding a way to acknowledge all the men who are emotionally and sexually mature, and who conduct themselves with dignity and good taste in their relationships? And how do we recognize the utter lack of opportunity victims have been given to simply be heard, let alone helped, while not immediately making new victims out of those who have been accused.
It is true that the moment to really listen to these stories of harassment and abuse is now — whether it is online, on the news channels, at the Golden Globes, or in conversation. We can listen to these accounts in a real and sustained way, coming to understand the threats that have arisen from attempting to speak out, including the loss of a job, your reputation, or worse, becoming a victim of even further violence. Even now, Tina Johnson’s home in Alabama recently burned down. (She is one of the women who accused Roy Moore of harassment, and the loss of her house is being investigated as arson.)
We are in challenging territory. It is difficult for any of us to have conversations that include an array of perspectives, most particularly when culture is trying to make a long, overdue change. But while the collective can sound only one clear note at a time, repeating it over and over until it is integrated into our social norms, in our private conversations at dinner, with friends, and at work, there is ample room to practice including more voices, more experiences, and further nuance — maybe traveling a little further out on the learning curve than the mainstream conversation can go.
We can accomplish this If we take pains to practice our listening skills. The problem is that we all think we are great listeners until we hear something that isn’t consistent with our current thinking. Then we become tense, contracted, and defensive, and the conversation loses it potential for expanding into new territory. In an atmosphere of political correctness, this is even more true, and real listening is often replaced with a compliant form of silence, which isn’t listening at all. To combat that, we have to calm ourselves in the face of disagreement, and even when uncomfortable, attempt to really listen. When we succeed and the most essential perspectives are deeply acknowledged, we create an opening for taking risks into even more perspectives and deeper learning.
For example, when we have really taken in the extent of the abuse and the injury, mainly to women, we can also presence the importance of due process, the role of proportionality, and the distinctions that must be made between that which is crude, but still possibly funny, to that which is distasteful, harassing, or downright criminal.
Another viewpoint that we might consider putting on the table, even though it is certainly risky, is that as women, paradoxically, we stand to lose power by expecting all the learning and change to come from men. We give away our ability to fully participate in setting the tone, the terms, and the conditions of our own encounters, still passively relying on men for our comfort and safety. (See this piece, and this.) And we may unwittingly lose the support of mature men who, like the men in my meeting, don’t feel that they can contribute honestly to the conversation.
Another exploration that could arise is to deepen our understanding of consent, which is one theme at the heart of this conversation. By listening to one another, engaging our successes and failures, we may become better at getting clear agreements about our sexual engagements, learning to say or to hear yes without ambivalence, and express or receive a no clearly, without fear or anxiety. In the company of our friends and fellow learners, we may be more willing to look more closely at our own motives for engaging others erotically, including how we conflate power with erotic exchange; seeing when we combine pleasure and opportunity, and noticing that we all lose clarity when we mix sex and ambition.
Finally, we might even go so far as to wonder what the role healthy sexuality has in our friendly relationships, even in the workplace. We might ask aloud whether in excluding all forms of flirtation, innuendo, and play, we are suggesting that all sexuality is by its very nature harmful and wrong. We might ask if, in an effort to prevent hostile work environment lawsuits, that we are allowing the most prudish among us to set the tone. And we might consider whether, in our effort to make sure no one ever feels a drop of discomfort, that we are re-creating a climate of sexual repression, encouraging our psyches to step backwards into private, and often more twisted, expressions of desire. I can’t help but think of the dour, grim faces of those from the Victorian era, or the number of perverted priests in churches, and these images make me want to stand for the eradication of sexual harassment within the context of free and healthy sexual expression.
When there is the freedom to truly exchange perspectives, when we can practice listening better and hearing more, and when we can risk with each other, offering up new, sometimes dicey points of view, there is potent potential for learning and for compassion. We become capable of navigating through these perspectives in a way that honors the truth in each of them, but still creates a hierarchy of perspectives which offers best and the highest for everyone. That’s not an easy thing to do. But it is far more interesting, informative, and helpful than insisting there is only one way to see things, and therefore, only one way to act.
Purchase Diane’s 2-hour Master Class:
#MeToo: On Perspectives, Listening, and Risk Taking
This recorded video Master Class is part a live teaching, discussion and practice in how to hold and participate in difficult cultural conversations generally, while focusing on the #MeToo movement as an example. The master class both points out and demonstrates live with real, candid participants how to pace and frame this kind of “hot” topic, skills to support better outcomes, and ultimately helps you to build confidence for risky and challenging cultural conversations.
Diane Musho Hamilton
Co-Founder and Lead Teacher, Integral Facilitator®
Author, Everything is Workable, a Zen Approach to Conflict Resolution and The Zen of You and Me: A Guide to Getting Along to Just About Anyone