In a column a couple of years back, Michelle Goldberg admitted she felt sorry for the lower level harassers slammed by #metoo, the “schmoes whose gross behavior was tacitly accepted by those around them until, suddenly, it wasn’t. I can only imagine how disorienting it must be to have the rules change on you so fast, to have your reputation obliterated in an instant.” (Don’t get the wrong idea, her sympathy does not mean she excuses them).
Working on Undead Sexist Cliches I see this a lot. Placido Domingo has argued that his long history of harassment looks bad now because standards have changed. Similarly Isaac Asimov did a lot of his groping back in the days when this was, as Greenberg said, something that was tacitly accepted by a lot of men, as long as it wasn’t your girlfriend or wife (both he and Domingo kept at long after standards changed though). Women, though? As one of his victims responded, there’s never been a time women thought being groped or harassed was okay. What’s changed is that more people take the women’s side. Not only that, more people (not enough yet) think they should take the woman’s side and that the man should be punished. Which is what truly unsettles the men, I think: it’s not just that a woman might slap your face for grabbing her, it’s that you can actually suffer consequences for it.
As Fred Clark points out, that’s part of a bigger shift in morality within my lifetime. When I was born, dirty jokes were shameful, dropping the F-bomb was awful and premarital sex was something you didn’t admit to; Dan Wakefield, in New York in the Fifties, says that back then if you made love to someone at their apartment, you left very early in the morning so nobody in the building would be up and (shudder) realize you were making the walk of shame. Segregation and treating black people like shit? Groping or otherwise harassing your secretary? Hiring a white man over a better-qualified woman or person of color? These didn’t have universal support even back then but they were endorsed by many, tacitly accepted by many more.
And then things changed. The sexual revolution, women’s liberation, Stonewall, the Civil Rights movement. Suddenly living together before marriage and being openly not a virgin — or even gay and not a virgin — were acceptable. Keeping blacks out of your neighborhood or refusing service to a gay couple? Not acceptable. As Clark says, “for many Americans this change was bewildering and infuriating. It was — and is — especially traumatic for those who had previously regarded themselves and their institutions as the standard-bearers of traditional morality. A hard-won, massive change in our cultural perception of right and wrong required an equally massive change in their sense of identity, and humans’ sense of identity isn’t receptive to massive changes.” And so they continue to insist on traditional morality. They insist that traditional morality was an unambiguously higher morality because now we have SEX everywhere! That traditional morality approved of Jim Crow and multiple other injustices — marital rape was legal, gay sex was illegal, some states outlawed contraception, women could be denied credit if their husband didn’t co-sign — doesn’t change their opinion. Either going back to that is an acceptable trade-off to get rid of SEX or they really do think the good old days of white male supremacy were a better way to live.
Trump supporters keep saying that if Biden wins, it won’t be the America they grew up in. If they’re my age, that’s a good thing. That America was not a better place. Not being that America any more is a good thing.