The dominoes have started to fall, and they are now tumbling faster and faster. At this moment, we are living through what Malcolm Gladwell would call The Tipping Point.
We are now all uncomfortably aware of this poorly-kept secret: women in the entertainment industry have been sexually harassed and assaulted by men in power, but rarely has anything been done about it. The tides started to turn in October 2014, when Bill Cosby was accused of multiple drug-facilitated sexual assaults. At first, we didn’t want to believe it – as Cliff Huxtable, Bill Cosby was America’s father during the 1980s. He liked Jello pudding and he didn’t swear during his comedy routines. What’s not to like? Then, as more and more women came forward, it became clear that our safe, comfortable reality was about to come crashing down. The number of accusers kept climbing until the total surpassed 50. This could not longer be a conspiracy or a collusion – we needed to adjust to a harsh, new reality.
What was a single tremor in 2014 turned into an earthquake during the summer and fall of 2017. One after another, major entertainment and political figures were being accused by multiple women of sexual assault and harassment: Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., James Toback, Ben Affleck, Jeffrey Tambor, Al Franken.
As I was beginning this blog post, Charlie Rose was accused by eight women of sexual harassment. He has since been suspended by CBS. As I write this now, Pixar animator John Lasseter has just taken a six-month leave of absence from the company after acknowledging “missteps” in his behaviour with Pixar employees.
People are understandably outraged, not only by the abhorrent behaviour but also by the jarring pervasiveness of it. There is a collective desire to punish these perpetrators, and I share that feeling with you. However, what concerns me is not how we feel, but how we’ve reacted, and the consistency of our knee-jerk reactions:
- Kevin Spacey: Netflix cut ties with him.
- Louis CK: His movie premiere was cancelled.
- Jeffrey Tambor: He has departed from his television series, Transparent.
- Charlie Rose: Fired from CBS and PBS.
These punitive measures may make us a sense that justice is being served, but they’re simply short-term, feel-good reactions. In my opinion, there is a much better way to handle these situations, and it begins with examining what we, as a society, want. Yes, we want them to pay for their transgressions, but there is a broader goal: we want them to stop abusing their power or position, to respect others, and to behave like decent human beings. The path to this goal begins with a look back at our childhood.
When I was a little kid, my brother and I usually got along, but not always. When we were fighting or being antagonistic toward each other, my mother would walk into the room and say “I want you two to play nicely together!”. In hindsight, she was very wise. Instead of removing one of us from the room, she deliberately kept us together so that we would learn how to get along with each other. She didn’t adjust our environment because we weren’t well-behaved; we had to change our behaviour and adapt to our environment. It was a form of social Darwinism, and it worked… for a little while. Over time, my brother and I did learn to play nicely together.
I believe this parenting principle can also apply to adults. Of the people in the above list, let’s use Kevin Spacey as an example. After his reprehensible behaviour was publicized, Netflix, understandably, wanted to distance itself from him, and they cut ties with him. I get that. I’m sure that they see him as a toxic person, a general liability to their brand, and perhaps even to their bottom line. However, this is still a Lady Macbeth-esque knee-jerk reaction. Naturally, without their lead actor, the future of his television series, House of Cards, is up in the air.
I believe that there is a better approach to this situation, using a variation of my mother’s conflict resolution technique.
As yourself this: Will removing Kevin Spacey from his studio environment make him a better person? Rather than simply fire him (and possibly cancel House of Cards), I’d like to propose the following scenario:
Kevin Spacey’s current contract is torn up, and renegotiated, with the following additional provisions:
- His annual salary will remain the same, but he will now receive only 50% of it.
- The other 50% will be divided as follows:
- 25% of his annual salary will be divided evenly among the co-workers he molested
- The other 25% will be divided evenly among the rest of the employees. Not just the on-camera talent, but everyone working on the show.
- He will apologize, in person and individually, to every colleague he harassed or assaulted.
- He will treat everyone working on the show with the utmost respect and courtesy, at all time, both on and off the set.
- Those colleagues whom he molested who no longer want to work with him will still be entitled to their share of the 25% portion of his salary, even if they find work elsewhere.
- If he behaves inappropriately again, then he will be fired immediately and his character will be written out of the show.
As you’ve probably guessed by now, the difference here is that his environment will not change; he will remain in it, learn to adapt to it, and learn to treat everyone around him with respect. This is actually a harsher punishment than simply taking away his show, because it makes Netflix the proverbial parent, who is saying “Listen, Spacey, you are not going to run away; we won’t allow it. You are going to stay here, and you are going to treat everyone with the utmost consideration.”
My proposal will give him the opportunity to start practising this less puerile behaviour, day after day, week after week, and month after month. He’ll still earn more than enough money to live, but the sudden reduction in pay will be a reminder that the pendulum still needs to swing the other way for a while before a balance can be restored. Over time, his new civilized comportment should become his new normal, just like it did for my brother and me. I, for one, have faith in Kevin Spacey; like a modern-day Ebenezer Scrooge, I don’t think he’s too old to turn over a new leaf. I think he can transform himself into a decent person, and that is, ultimately, our goal.
In fact, this scenario, with minor modifications, could also be adapted for Jeffrey Tambor and Charlie Rose.
Let’s not be reactionary and change the environment for celebrities who behave poorly. Keep them in the same environment, make sure they know that they’re being watched, and then hold them to a higher behavioural standard. They need to practice continual respectful interactions until it becomes second nature. My proposal gives them that opportunity.
As I turn on my television and continue to watch the proverbial dominoes fall, our collective responses seem dishearteningly similar. It’s tempting to step in when karma isn’t moving fast enough for us, but let’s not succumb to knee-jerk reactions. If we want to create a better society, we need to play the long game. What we see as just and immediate punishment is merely our attempt at changing the environment in response to their actions. Let’s take this opportunity to shape their behaviour and help them realize that they must adapt, and that the changes must come from within.