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This year's South Park Halloween episode poked fun at the avalanche of sexual assault and harassment allegations currently roiling Hollywood. The premise of the episode is that every Halloween the town's men dress up as witches and spend a week getting high and drinking. This year, the tradition takes a bad turn when one of the men reads from a book of incantations and becomes an actual witch, flying around on a broomstick, abducting children. The rest of the "coven" tries to convince the townspeople that they shouldn't blame "all witches" for the actions of one. The central (and very overplayed) joke is that the witches are concerned that the crimes of the actual murderous witch will lead to a "witch hunt."
I found the episode to be a rare satirical misfire for a show that, even when it's not laugh-out-loud funny, is always clever. The "not all witches" gag fails because the other witches are indeed innocent, whereas in the case of the Hollywood allegations, many men are guilty of, in some cases, very serious misconduct. I would go so far as to speculate that the majority of the Hollywood accused are probably guilty as charged. But now we get to the heart of the problem: Is it okay to let a few innocent guys be punished or shunned because of the actions of a bunch of other guys? Some leftists certainly think so. Last month, feminist filmmaker Emily Lindin straight-out declared on Twitter:
Here's an unpopular opinion: I'm actually not at all concerned about innocent men losing their jobs over false sexual assault/harassment allegations.... If some innocent men's reputations have to take a hit in the process of undoing the patriarchy, that is a price I am absolutely willing to pay.
Right around the same time, sentient dung beetle Lena Dunham revoked her support for Murray Miller, a friend and colleague of hers who had been accused of rape by a member of the writing staff of Dunham's show, Girls. Many Hollywood feminists were shocked when Dunham declared in a joint statement with Girls showrunner Jenni Konner, "While our first instinct is to listen to every woman's story, our insider knowledge of Murray's situation makes us confident that sadly this accusation is one of the 3 percent of assault cases that are misreported every year." Dunham was immediately trashed by her fellow feminists, especially feminists of color, who used the fact that Miller's accuser is black to label Dunham a (here it comes) "racist" for not taking the word of a black woman over whatever "insider knowledge" led her to dispute the allegations. Unsurprisingly, Dunham folded quicker than her belly fat when she bends over. She apologized for coming to her friend's defense, declaring that all women must be believed, no matter what. Equally unsurprisingly, her apology did not mollify her critics, who continued (and still continue) to demand blood. This raises (or certainly should raise) a very uncomfortable question: Did Lena Dunham turn on a man she knows (or strongly believes) to be innocent because she genuinely holds that one must "believe the women" even if the woman is wrong?
"Is it okay to let a few innocent guys be punished or shunned because of the actions of a bunch of other guys?"
I would argue that this is, in fact, the worst thing that can be done in the name of combating sexual assault and harassment. If all stories are automatically believed uncritically, they can all be automatically dismissed, too. If we don't judge them on their merits, it will actually become much harder for women who have been truly wronged to be believed. Their stories can be brushed off with a wave of the hand: "How can I take you seriously when people admit they'd ‘believe' you even if you're lying?"
Someone needs to ask Lena Dunham if she believes Carolyn Bryant, the white woman who accused Emmett Till of accosting her. Bryant's Till accusation was certainly believed unquestioningly by the Mississippians who murdered him. She would later admitthat she made the whole thing up. Would Dunham be willing to say, "Nevertheless, it was the right thing to do for everyone to believe her at the time"?
I bring this up for a reason. Two weeks ago, I profiled a friend of mine who was one of the people groped by Kevin Spacey. I made it clear that not only do I believe him, but I also believe the vast majority of Hollywood accusers. I caught shit from both sides for that one. Some of my rightist buddies claimed I was being "cucky" by claiming to believe most of the women, while several of my leftist pals attacked me for saying "most" instead of "all." I was also the recipient of a very stern tongue-lashing on Facebook by a female friend-of-a-friend who raked me over the coals for suggesting, as I did in the piece, that single instances of "rude behavior" and "unwanted touching with no accompanying real or implied threat of harm" are in a completely different category than sexual assault.
I had my reasons for making that point. So this week, let me profile another friend, whose experiences in the Harassocaust are of a different nature than the Spacey victim's.
Scott Rosendall is a very talented actor, and a good friend. Confined to a wheelchair, he excels at comedic roles that challenge the notion that disabled people are always noble and dignified. Basically, he plays a lot of jerks, and he plays a lot of creeps. One of the things I like about Scott is that he's ideologically open-minded. He leans left on certain issues, but he's always up for reasonable conversation with right-wing dickwads like me and his longtime friend Edwin Oslan, my weekly podcast cohost.
Last month, Scott decided to speak out, as an industry professional, about what he saw as the danger in making snap judgments when someone in Hollywood is accused of some manner of improper sexual behavior. In a thoughtful and carefully worded Facebook post (since removed), he warned against getting caught up in a witch hunt.
Well, that turned out to be a mistake! Within minutes, his Hollywood colleagues began insulting him, berating him, and defriending him. And it was about to get worse. One woman in his circle accused him of having "groped" her. She's a movie editor and documentary film director, but I can't use her name because when I reached out to interview her, I promised to keep her anonymous. So I'll call her Linda. Her claim is that at a party some years ago, Scott "put his hand on her chest." Scott agreed that he did touch her upper chest (not her breasts) while trying, for comedic effect, to make a priest's "blessing" motion. Linda told him she didn't like to be touched, and he apologized. A screen shot of a text clearly shows that the woman accepted his apology. She never mentioned the "incident" again for three years, and the two continued to mix cordially at social events.
But following the "witch hunt" post, that all changed. She went after him full-throttle, and she encouraged her friends to do the same. He was called a "monster," a "molester," "a creeper who thinks he's on our side," and "as bad as a rapist." There were calls to harass him at his job and "kick his ass." One woman sent him a late-night threat that implied he was going to be "hunted." There was absolutely no sense of proportion to the reaction. When Scott tried to defend himself, when he pointed out that Linda had long ago accepted his apology, the attacks intensified. Now he was "blaming the victim." I'd never seen such vitriol directed at someone, in many cases from people he'd considered friends. Scott was devastated. He issued several heartfelt apologies, not one of which made a damn bit of difference to his pursuers.
His career may indeed suffer because of this; his "hunters" have been reaching out to industry professionals telling them what a "monster" he is.
When I contacted Linda, my main desire was to find out from her if Scott's "crime" had indeed been nothing more than a touch to the upper chest. She refused to answer any questions. Initially, she said she didn't want to participate in any "formal, public discussion" of the issue...which I found odd because she had (and still has) a totally public thread about the matter on her Facebook page. She told me that Scott had apologized again, and this time she was willing to accept it, and now she only seeks "closure" (no mention of that in the Facebook thread, where her friends continued to call for the man's scalp). She later clarified that she doesn't want to go public because of a fear of "bullying" (like being told you're going to be "hunted"?). One final "clarification" informed me that her real reason for not talking was that she didn't trust my "bias" as Scott's friend.
End of story. Except not for Scott. Apart from being emotionally ravaged by the entire incident, he has legitimate fears for his acting career.
Now, don't get me wrong-it can be rude to touch someone, even at a party, without their consent. Having grown up as a wee child, always the smallest boy in class, and always at the mercy of the bigger kids, I'm not a fan of people putting their hands on me, even as a joke. But the reason I detailed Scott's story is that it demonstrates how people have lost any and all sense of proportion regarding these kinds of allegations. It didn't take much to be sent to the guillotine during the days of la Terreur. The notion of going after the worst of the nobles and hoarders was soon lost in a sea of blind fanaticism, a desire to lash out mindlessly, an atmosphere in which even the simple act of saying "Whoa, slow down, let's be thoughtful" or "Sacré bleu, I think this person is innocent" could lead to a death sentence. Nothing good ever comes of that kind of madness.
The thing is, long before the "witches" episode, South Park had already done its defining show about the Harassocaust, without even knowing it. In the 1999 episode "Spontaneous Combustion," residents of South Park begin exploding, apparently for no reason. Randy investigates, and determines that it's because the townsfolk are holding in their farts. To end the combustion plague, Randy encourages everyone to fart as much as possible. But soon enough, a new crisis emerges because now people are farting too much, and the mass release of methane is causing global warming.
In the end, Randy realizes that both extremes are dangerous. Don't hold farts in, but don't fart every few seconds. Find the middle ground.
Being reflexively skeptical and dismissive of all abuse and harassment claims, which this town was for far too long, was bad. Accepting every claim uncritically is bad. Excusing and accepting genuinely abusive behavior by Hollywood big shots was wrong. So is equating a nonthreatening touch with rape. Both extremes are lousy.
On South Park, the people listened to Randy's sage advice. In real life? He'd have been drummed out of town for trying to bring moderation to a mania.
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