We all like to think we have a good sixth sense about people. Malcolm Gladwell wrote in Blink about the decisions we make instantly, without thinking. We all like to believe we can spot a liar, not be fooled by the con man, resist the siren call of salesmen or advertising. We like to believe that our intuition, Divine guidance, Spidey-sense, or the Force will set off alarm bells if someone we encounter has secret malevolent intentions or overall bad character.
Obviously, a lot of people who think they have this good sense about people don’t, otherwise con men would never succeed. Life has a way of teaching us some humility as it passes. I’ve had tenants rip me off, enjoyed the company of friends who weren’t actually my friends, and I thought former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell had a bright future in Republican politics. The odds are good that we don’t really know people as well as we think we know them, and that is exponentially more accurate for public figures.
Once we learned that Weinstein was a sexual predator, groping and harassing and attacking his way through every actress and model in Hollywood, probably quite a few people who never liked him felt vindicated, thinking something like, “I knew there was something really wrong with that guy.” Perhaps you really are a good judge of character or have a sixth sense about people. But perhaps you simply had other reasons to not like him and drew a full conclusion about his character from that.
If you’re reading this newsletter, the odds are good that if you had ever heard of Roy Moore before the scandal, you thought better of him, or at least better than Harvey Weinstein. (Perhaps the lowest bar to clear.) Perhaps like me, you’re skeptical that a statue of the Ten Commandments in a judicial building represents an unacceptable unification of church and state. (If any particular statue, painting, or other work is an artistic depiction of any culture’s representation of justice, I’d be inclined to let it stay. The U.S. Supreme Court building has friezes featuring Moses, Solomon, Confucius, Justinian, Muhammad (!), Charlemagne, Napoleon, and others.) Rather than seeing Moore’s fight over the Ten Commandments statue as a sign of his appetite for theocratic extremism, as many in the media portrayed it, you saw Moore as a man fighting to keep some semblance of Christian values in an increasingly morally decadent society. You may or may not agree with Moore’s steadfast refusal to enforce a Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage.
A lot of people’s evaluation of the differing accounts is based upon their preexisting opinion of Moore. If you thought he was a loon or extremist before, it’s a short step to imagine him pursuing women way too young for him, even in violation of the law; if you like him, you believe he deserves the benefit of the doubt until someone presents irrefutable proof that these allegations are true.
Perhaps you really are a good judge of character or have a sixth sense about Roy Moore. But perhaps you simply had other reasons to like him and are drawing an inaccurate conclusion about his character from that.
It should not surprise us that Roy Moore fans are treating the Washington Post story as a personal attack upon themselves; on some level, it is. The article asserts, in effect, “the man you thought of as a good man for all these years was, at least in the late 70s and early 80s, not a good man. Your judgment and ability to assess others’ character is faulty.” This fact is true of all of us, but no one likes being confronted with it.
I would argue the solution for this is simply to stop seeing public figures — whether political figures or celebrities — as role models and stop putting them up on pedestals. The ability to win elections, perform well on camera, perform great athletic feats, or other extraordinary traits is not synonymous with good character. (It is entirely possible that good character is an impediment to ambition.)
Last week I offered a few tweets on this theme with photos of Bill Clinton, Bernard Law, Bill Cosby, Jimmy Swaggart, John Edwards, O.J. Simpson, Jim McGreevey, Kevin Spacey, Dennis Hastert, Eliot Spitzer, and Tiger Woods, and it was fascinating to see how many argued that one figure or the other didn’t belong in the same category with the others. The point is that all of them had a dark side that they hid from their many admirers, one that led to their downfall. It is likely that fame, power, and money do not bring out a person’s best character. An atmosphere of constant adoration and entitlement probably erodes the conscience and that little voice telling us, “I shouldn’t do that.”
Perhaps particular forms of fame present their own enabling influence: If you’re a comedian known for doing blunt sexual routines, describing your id’s desire to take wildly inappropriate actions, and everyone laughs and praises you as a genius for that, it becomes more difficult to resist the impulse to act out those actions in real life.
*Some would argue that Moore is giving contradictory statements in his defense, first stating, “These allegations are completely false, false and misleading,” and then later saying, “I don’t remember going out on dates. I knew her as a friend. If we did go out on dates then we did. But I do not remember that.” If they did indeed go on dates and Moore simply doesn’t remember it, then the allegation isn’t “completely false, false and misleading.”
Patient Zero for a Plague of Tolerating Sexual Harassment from Powerful Men
David Brooks asks an extremely important question, one that I suspect many of the most prominent media voices of 1998 will want to avoid confronting.
[T]he uncomfortable thing for a lot of progressives, frankly, is how much did the Clinton thing create this whole environment? How much did tolerance of Bill Clinton create the environment in which the rest of this was given permission?
I think it had an effect. I think the fact that — nobody, like, was approving Bill Clinton and some of the things he was accused of doing, like Kathleen Willey, those sorts of people. But people were not saying, ‘We’re drawing the line here.’ And if you don’t draw lines in these big cases, then you don’t draw lines in the little cases in the workplace. And so, now we’re seeing — you know, we saw Republicans tolerating what Donald Trump was accused of doing, and today, we’re seeing this astounding case where Republicans in Alabama are tolerating what Judge Roy Moore is accused of doing.
Gloria Steinem responded to the allegations against Bill Clinton with a position some characterized as a “one free grope rule”: if a man backs down after making one undesired sexual advance, he has done nothing wrong. It is not surprising that if you institute that social more for a president you like, a lot of powerful men will believe that rule applies to them, as well.
Speaking of Religious Environments of Powerful, Abusive Men . . .
Every once in a while, the New York Times op-ed page turns its attention to sex scandals within groups that usually enjoy sympathetic coverage from the paper. Sylvie Kauffmann, the editorial director and a former editor in chief of Le Monde, informs readers of shocking — or perhaps not so shocking — allegations about one of the world’s most prominent Islamic theologians:
If you thought it was challenging for women to come forward and accuse Harvey Weinstein of rape, consider accusing the Islamic theologist Tariq Ramadan. Emboldened by the enormous response in France to the #MeToo wave that was born in Hollywood, two Frenchwomen decided last month to sue Mr. Ramadan for rape and sexual abuse. One of the women, Henda Ayari, has gone public. The second has described her ordeal to journalists but has remained anonymous. And for good reason: Henda Ayari has had to appeal for help after becoming the target of a vicious campaign of insults and slander on social networks, mostly from Muslim extremists. Mr. Ramadan, a grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, denies the accusations.
It is not only that the Swiss-born Mr. Ramadan, 55, who has taken a leave of absence from Oxford University, where he has taught contemporary Islamic studies (a chair financed by Qatar), is a prominent figure on the intellectual and religious Islamic scene in France. What makes his accusers particularly brave is that they, like him, are practicing Muslims. By the very fact of having spent time alone with him, they have, in the eyes of rigorist teachings of Islam, violated the rules of modesty that women are required to follow . . .
[Kaouther] Ben Hania, 40, is one of several Arab women now raising their voices in North Africa and in France. The New Year’s Eve attacks by mostly Arab migrants on German women in Cologne in 2016 shed light on what the Algerian author and columnist Kamel Daoud described as “the sexual misery of the Arab world.” His scathing text, published in Le Monde and The New York Times, shocked a group of French academics, who accused him of indulging in “Orientalist clichés.” But when the video of a young woman sexually assaulted by a group of teenagers on a bus in Casablanca, Morocco, went viral this summer, those academics kept silent.
The Catholic Church deserved the public scorn it received for the abuse scandals in past decades, and evangelicals are going to get a lot of grief for excusing Moore’s behavior. But if we’re handing out public derision for religions mistreating women and excusing sexual abuse, let’s not avert our eyes from a faith that condones punishing rape victims by lashing them and in some cases stoning them to death.
ADDENDA: At a time when so many folks on the right seem angry at everyone else when they disagree, I want to thank Nate Jackson for concluding my assessment on Moore was “worth pondering.” To return the favor, I’ll note that if these women are making up or wildly exaggerating their encounters with Moore, then he is a victim of a great injustice — on par with the late Richard Jewell — and he might very well have a case for libel against the Post.