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writing for godot

Harvey Weinstein and a Case of Mass Hysteria

Written by Mark John Maguire   
Saturday, 11 November 2017 06:22

Mass Hysteria

I have watched the unfolding of the Harvey Weinstein debacle with a mixture of distaste and bemusement: the former because he appears to have had free rein to act with impunity with women in an industry where the "casting couch" has become a smirking byword for sexual abuse; and the latter because it seems that almost every woman he came into contact with in decades in the movie industry was abused by him but has remained silent since. That speaks to culture perhaps and to the power such a man wielded over his victims. Clearly we should not diminish the extent of any conduct of this kind, but nor should we lose sight of a number of things in our collective indignation: 1) that natural justice requires that we should be cautious about accepting all claims by the weight of numbers of such accusations alone;2) that it is a long established principle in advanced societies that the burden of proof in any allegation must rest with the accuser; 3) that we must be wary of the "bandwagon" effect in such cases where, for a variety of reasons, real complaints garner less real and even false complaints - in fact that such matters occupy a broad spectrum from mild embarrassment to morally repugnant and highly illegal - and we must discriminate accordingly.

More importantly, the reaction to the Weinstein affair has, by extrapolation, spread - for better and worse - into many other areas of public life and led to a situation where anyone who has ever acted foolishly or imprudently, is brought into the glare of public scrutiny. This is a familiar reaction amongst human beings - it owes much to mass hysteria, which has given us mob instinct, lynch mobs, "witch hunts" - and all collective emotional and insensate reactions to perceived social wrongs. It spawned the Salem Witch Trials and the McCarthyite obsession with communism (in its remotest manifestations) and the current US Establishment's obsession with Russian electoral interference. But even though the threats on which such public displays of anger may seem real enough, the mass hysteria which carries them is always disproportionate and destructive.

So it is with the Weinstein affair: this has quickly achieved a notoriety and corresponding virality witnessed by Mainstream Media and Social Media preoccupation, which at times seems to run beyond a genuine concern for sexual abuse and criminal activity to the extent that any woman who may once have brushed against a man or has had an improper suggestion made to her feels entitled to regard herself as some victim of the same order of Weinstein's accusers. That is a disservice to serious abuse and to those who have suffered such abuse because it seems unlikely, given the nature of human sexual relations, that any woman has not at some time been subject to some form of unwanted advance - and many men too. But that is an entirely different proposition to sexual abuse. It is worth remembering that in the broad spectrum of human interactions many such activities are natural - even if unwanted - forms of social dynamic and we should not lose sight of the fact that unwelcome attentions do not constitute sexual abuse - and nor should we persuade ourselves that they are something more serious by dint of prevailing social hysteria.

The consensual pressure of the majority over the minority is always persuasive and frequently destructive: in this, as in all matters sexual and social, we should keep perspective and acknowledge 1) that we must preserve the natural right of anyone accused to be believed as a matter of presumption; 2) that it is both natural and appropriate for the male of the human species to be pro-active in his relations with females and that certain risks are attendant in such relations to both - and certain responsibilities too; and 3) that to heighten or exaggerate such matters for social or personal motive causes damage to human relations. Does any of this excuse anything of which Harvey Weinstein or others may be accused? Of course not. But nor should it condition our responses to all other situations to the point where natural intercourse between men and women becomes fraught with anxiety and distrust. The ramifications of the Harvey Weinstein matter has rolled out into many other fields and caused a raft of complaints and accusations in the political world. Where power raises its head and establishes governing hierarchies and social strategies it is perhaps inevitable that sexual politics will come into play. Thus in all male-dominated activities in society it seems inevitable - though woeful - that men will use such power to exploit their sexual relations with women.

It is on the tide of such claims that on 6 November a Minister in the Welsh Assembly Government in the UK committed suicide after being accused of sexual harassment: with political authorities in hyper-sensitive mode as a result of the current climate his political party suspended him and he was dismissed from his Ministerial post. Thus, without the benefit of due process or of any natural rights he was, in effect, judged to be guilty on the basis of unspecified accusations. What were these accusations? Were they multiple or substantive? Or was he guilty of being a little too familiar with his staff or with party workers? We do not know. We do know that his public and private humiliation was sufficient to bring him to the realisation that he was quite ruined by this. That is the toxic nature of sexual allegations: proof is not required for the effects of guilt to be visited upon the accused. It is also part of the monstrous injustice of mass hysteria that it dispenses with all sense of proportion and reasonable conduct amongst its participants and as a result of this its impact can be as ill-considered and intemperate as that of a lynch mob - for that is very much what it is. your social media marketing partner
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