The recent revelations about sexual abuse in politics and the arts are more complex than most tabloid headlines would lead us to believe. We certainly want to know who did what and when. But we should be cautious about all the revelations. It is inevitable that certain allegations will prove to be false. False news can be personal as well as political. Rumors can circulate about individuals in all walks of life, but without proof, they can remain mere speculation.
Why rumors weren’t followed up is part of the unravelling of responsibility. We want to know more than just who did it. The obvious responsibility is for the acts themselves. In all the cases presented, there is a direct responsibility for the act and the person accused. There is a one-to-one correlation between the act and the perpetrator. Some of the accused will be jailed, others will only have their careers destroyed. And the victims, at least and at last, will have some sense of justice.
What is more nuanced is the indirect responsibility. In the allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s case, for example, it appears that women who worked for him accompanied young actresses to their rendezvous with the producer and then left the two alone. They were used to allay any fears the young actresses might have had about impropriety. Were the women who acted as chaperones aware of what was to take place? Was this considered part of their job description? Did they ever refuse? Did they complain to Weinstein or inform anyone else?
The difference between moral responsibility and legal responsibility is a fine distinction. Many of those accused will be found legally guilty and suffer the consequences. But, in the Weinstein case, while many people in Hollywood appear to have known about his behavior – as is the case in many of the other revelations – there is at least a moral responsibility for those who knew, or had inklings, but did not react.
In business and government, there have been many attempts to protect whistleblowers. Going to a third party, especially someone higher up than your boss, can be a risky business. All who have worked at any enterprise have been confronted with situations in which they feel uncomfortable either professionally or personally. We have all been confronted with making difficult decisions about complaining or remaining silent. Most sophisticated organizations try to establish an anonymous system wherein employees can present what they interpret to be unbecoming or unprofessional behavior with no penalty involved. This anonymous system is the ideal.
What is to be done about those who were indirectly responsible in these scandals? Do they have a sense of guilt that they should have done more? Do they realize that their silence could have prevented many of the horrific situations that took place? Do they appreciate their moral responsibility? Will they face trial as well?
Equally important, will the revelations encourage those who have hesitated to be whistleblowers to step forward? If enough of the revelations are proven true, and a significant number of people who knew or participated in one way or another are publicized as being indirectly responsible, will those in similar situations in the future be emboldened to come forward?
Responsibility is a backward and forward process. It determines who did what and who should be held accountable. But if properly publicized, it can also be a strong deterrent against future immoral or illegal actions. While the current focus is on the perpetrators, in the interest of the future, let’s hope those who were indirectly involved will be scrutinized morally and legally as well.