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People who believe in continual progress offer a wide variety of examples in support of that belief, examples which appear to show that things are better now than they have ever been and that this trend will continue forever. Or to place it in relationship to the theme of this blog, they offer up reasons for why we are saved, or perhaps, if they want to hedge a little bit, why salvation is just around the corner.
Generally these examples involve pointing out that there’s less superstition, or cruelty, or just ignorance in general, particularly at the level of an entire society. Sure some people might believe that the Earth is flat, but the entire society no longer believes it. (And I know that at least some people suspected the Earth was round as far back as the 6th century BC, don’t overthink the example.) One of the people to first quantify this society wide ignorance was Charles Mackay, a Scottish journalist who in 1841 published the book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (hereafter just “Madness”). Having an interest in both progress and examples of society wide delusions, I kept encountering mentions of this book until finally, I decided to read it. I would not recommend doing similarly.
A brief review: Sometimes when you read a old book, it becomes apparent that it’s still around and still being talked about because the ideas continue to be relevant or the writing is fantastic, or sometimes both. (Shakespeare is definitely this way for me.) Other times when reading an older book you realize it’s still being talked about because it spoke very directly to some big issue; it was impactful for it’s time, but it’s not a classic in any absolute sense. I have often heard that Uncle Tom’s Cabin fits into this category. Other times something is still being talked about because it was the first example, like the Epic of Gilgamesh. If you’ve read Gilgamesh you know what I mean. We keep it around because it’s basically the earliest surviving work of literature, but to a modern reader it’s just weird. Madness ends up being in both of these categories.
First, I think 1841 was a time when science and reason were definitely in a full on collision with superstition and ignorance and consequently Madness had particular resonance with people of the time. Second, as far as I can tell Madness was the first comprehensive overview of all the ways in which Europe had lost its collective mind, going back all the way to the High Middle Ages. In the book Mackay covers subjects like the South Sea Bubble, the Mississippi Scheme, the Crusades, dueling, alchemy, witchcraft, and numerous other cases of collective beliefs which turned out to be incorrect, harmful, or just vastly inflated.
So far, so interesting. The problem with Madness is the endless stories. With most social science books, of which Madness is clearly an early example, you appreciate the anecdotes, since it humanizes the statistics, but in Madness it’s all anecdotes, for example with alchemy he spends a couple of pages giving a general overview, and then proceeds to spend 100 pages providing biographies of staggering detail on no less than 37 separate alchemists. (Including several pages on Nicholas Flamel for you Harry Potter fans out there.) If you’re already pretty much sold on the phoniness of alchemy and the non-existence of a philosopher stone, then that’s probably at least 30 alchemists too many. Also the language is pretty dense and archaic, which when combined with the rest makes it difficult read even if there weren’t 30 extra alchemists.
As you have probably gathered I wouldn’t recommend the book, and yes my “brief review” did turn into something of an “extended rant”. Anyway… moving on…
You may be wondering why I would even bring up a book that I didn’t enjoy very much (despite being glad the book exists.) and which, if small-p progressives are to be believed, doesn’t even apply anymore. Certainly, while this sort of a thing was a problem in 1841 when Madness was published, it can’t possibly still be a concern in 2017. Obviously, we’re long past dealing with the sort of problems that Mackay was talking about right? The march of progress is ever onward and upward!
Put me down as someone who still believes that popular delusions exist, and that the crowds can still go mad. As someone who thought the presentation of Madness could have been better, but still believes in the importance of the central theme.
For those who paid any attention during the financial crisis, this may not be a surprise. But I have also listened to numerous people who would argue that this isn’t an example of a popular delusion or if it is, it’s an isolated example. And evidence only that financial markets suffer bubbles, not that an entire societies go insane. I wish this were so, and while I would certainly accept that the madness and the panics are not as all encompassing or as dangerous as they once were, they have definitely not disappeared entirely. For those whose memories go a little bit farther back you may recall the panic of ritual satanic abuse during the 1980’s. Which resulted in ridiculous accusations and stories, like those which lead to the appalling McMartin PreSchool Trial. (Which I only just discovered was the longest and most expensive criminal trial in US history.)
Some of you may already know where I’m headed with all of this and others of you may still be wondering what my point is. Well, consider, if this sort of thing still happens, what might be a current example? And recall, before I actually mention the example I have in mind, that I’m not saying that it’s a delusion, rather that it’s a situation which has some elements in common with past excesses, and might, therefore, deserve further scrutiny. I’m thinking about the wave of sexual harassment allegations which have swept over the country in the last couple of months (hard to believe it all started on October 5th.) And I think it’s worth asking, is there any element of madness to it?
Of course by asking this, I don’t want anyone to assume that I am saying that sexual harassment is a collective delusion, that’s both absurd and insane. I am most definitely not saying that. But, one of the things that jumps out in all the incidents I’ve listed is that in every case there was something going on. In every case they started with a true problem or a true opportunity. Just as sexual harassment is a true, and very severe problem. But how do we know when something passes from a good idea, to an extreme overreaction. And in the case of sexual harassment, how do we know when things go from long-overdue justice, to collective mania?
Let’s take three examples from the book: the South Sea Bubble, Alchemy and the Crusades. These are all examples of large groups of people getting together to do something, which, in retrospect, seemed pretty dumb. But as far as the South Sea Bubble goes there was actually some pretty lucrative trading to be done with South America. With respect to Alchemy there was some amazing discoveries being made with chemistry, and it did appear that we might be on the verge of something truly miraculous. And finally, speaking of the Crusades, it was not unreasonable for an increasingly powerful Christian Europe to take an interest in the Holy Land. Where they went off the rails in all of these cases is when the perceived importance of what they were doing became more important than common sense, or laws, or scientific rigor, etc. If you’ve been following things you can probably see where I think the spike in accusations might deserve some scrutiny.
Now that we’ve set the stage, let’s begin by looking at all the ways in which the current spike in awareness is both true and necessary. First, there can be no doubt that a lot of powerful people have abused their positions of power to sexually harass, assault and rape those who were less powerful. Harvey Weinstein is still the classic example of this with more than 83 women coming forward to tell stories of how he used his position to do all manner of truly despicable things. Perhaps equally despicable was his efforts afterwards to silence his accusers, generally by destroying their careers. But of course it’s also true that it wasn’t just Weinstein, he was just the snowflake that started the avalanche. Now, with everyone from opera conductors to NPR personalities (at last count we’re up to four just in that category) being accused, you have to assume that this is an extremely widespread problem. It’s also indisputably true that we should not go back to the days where this sort of behavior was kept secret or where women (and others) felt like they couldn’t come forward. Which is to say that it’s true that the old ways were bad (which is still something which needs to be said at times like these.)
All of these things are true, and belong at the center of the current crisis/scandal. Nor is this an exhaustive list, there are other upsetting things, which are also true and completely inappropriate. But there are also other true things which are less obvious, but perhaps no less important to talk about. Things which are being ignored, and putting all of the emphasis on some true things while ignoring other true things is when you risk turning the initial true kernel into a broader witch hunt.
First, not all men are guilty by association or complicit in covering things up. There is not some sex-specific original sin which is only now coming to light. This would seem like something that would go without saying, but I have seen people make this exact accusation.
Second, and closely related to the above, it is not the case that only women are harrassed and only men do the harrassing. And if this isn’t just a way of demonizing men, pointing out this fact and giving equal time to men who’ve been harassed would be a great way of demonstrating that.
Third, it is not okay if innocent people have their lives destroyed. Which is also something which would seem to go without saying, but there are many people who think the problem is bad enough that if innocent people get caught up in things that it’s just the cost of doing business.
Finally it’s not true that every form of harassment should carry equal punishment. But that seems to be how it’s playing out.
Let’s take each of these points one by one and expand upon them.
As far as the first point, I offer this up more as the danger we seem to be headed towards rather that an assessment of our current situation. I don’t think many people outside of some on the fringe truly believe that all men engage in true sexual harassment. But, that said, there are articles like this one in the Guardian which while not saying all men are guilty does say that all men must be challenged about sexual harassment, which seems like it’s not as far from believing all men are harassers as I would like. And of course there are many people who would argue that as a man I shouldn’t even be weighing in on this, which is another way of framing things which comes fairly close to a war of one sex against another. As I said, the most extreme form of this argument still exists only on the fringe, but as I have pointed out before, lots of times the fringe ends up becoming the middle if you just wait long enough.
This attitude of one sex against the other may be most alarming when applied to the second point, men who are sexually abused by other men or by women. I don’t think I should be forbidden from talking about this issue (as evidenced by this post) but I can understand why someone might make that argument. I can even understand calling out men for their possible complicity in ongoing harassment even if they’re not the harasser, but I don’t understand why, if you’re really concerned about the issue of sexual harassment, assault and rape, you would discount someone’s story, just because they’re not a woman. I understand that this point has been somewhat under the radar, and that perhaps you haven’t even considered it, but, if nothing else, it does create an interesting dynamic. I admit I hadn’t given much thought to it until I read Scott Alexander’s take on it over at Slate Star Codex, and rather than spend much more time fumbling around and demonstrating my own ignorance I would urge you to just go read his post.
(Also this is probably also a good time to mention that with Scott’s permission I have turned his blog into a podcast (including the post I just mentioned) in the same way I did with my blog. If you’re interested you can find it on iTunes and Sticher (or there’s the raw rss feed.))
The third point, the possibility of extreme harm being done to innocent people, is where most of my worry is focused. And where I think we’re in the most danger of ending up in a “Madness of the Crowds” situation, Unfortunately it’s difficult to get a true sense of how many innocents have been wrongly caught up in the recent events. I couldn’t find any statistics on the number of false allegations of sexual harassment, and given the current climate it might be something which is changing as we speak. So instead I’ll offer up an anecdote, and acknowledge that there are limitations to using a single point of data. I came across this anecdote in an article by David Cole in Takimag. For the complete story you should read the original article, but in short it concerns Scott Rosendall, a talented actor, who also happens to be confined to a wheelchair. A short while ago he warned about the current climate of snap judgements wandering into witch hunt territory. It was a FaceBook post, which the original article describes as “thoughtful and carefully worded” I can’t verify that for myself because it has since been removed. (No surprise) But in any event you might be able to guess what happened next. I’ll let Cole describe it:
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.
Also, as you might imagine, following all of this, Scott has the perfectly legitimate fear that he may never act again.
Part of what this story illustrates is the differing definitions of innocent. I could certainly imagine some people saying well this isn’t an example at all of harm being caused to innocent people, he wasn’t innocent, he touched her chest! Well… he claims it was an accident, he has proof that he both apologized and that she accepted the apology, if that’s not innocent I’m not sure who is. Also Cole tried to find out from Linda exactly what happened and she refused to say whether it was just a accidental touch of her upper chest or something more extreme, so we don’t even have a “he said, she said” situation it’s a “he said/she won’t answer” situation.
But let’s say for the moment that he is guilty. Is he as guilty as Garrison Keillor who claims he also apologized, had the apology accepted, and now feels he may to leave the country? Is he as guilty as Al Franken? Louis CK? Matt Lauer?
This takes us to the final point, despite a broad range in the severity of their behavior all of those people including, probably, Scott Rosendall, got the same punishment: losing their job and being permanently shunned by everyone. Now, to be fair, there is another level, above that, where you do something so bad the police become involved. This appears to include Weinstein, Tobeck and Spacey, and probably a few others, but not Matt Lauer. And who knows what will end up happening there. Which means, as far as I can tell everyone gets the same punishment, and I don’t think this makes sense. I understand that these are serious offenses, but there is a gradient to the offenses. Unfortunately there doesn’t appear to be a gradient in the punishment. Take Al Franken for example, I was never a fan, but I don’t think he should have had to resign. I confess I’m not 100% sure what the intermediate punishment should have been though traditionally money has done a pretty good job of filling that role. And also given that he’s a politician, there is a built in system for determining whether someone should keep their job. It’s called voting…
(To be fair, there is an additional dynamic when speaking of Democratic politicians. As the Economist pointed out in a recent article, they may be falling on their sword hoping that eventually Republicans like Trump and Moore will be forced to do the same, but until then, we may end up with a lot of “dead” democrats.)
For those who still aren’t sure why this is bad. Who presumably read the story of Scott Rosendall and were unmoved. Who feel that no price is too high to pay to get all harassers out of the workplace regardless of the severity of their crime, consider it from another angle. Consider Woody Allen. Dylan Farrow recently wrote an article wondering why, with everyone else being put to the sword, has Woody Allen escaped. Try this on for size, could it be because there’s only one possible punishment? Is it conceivable that he’s escaped because, while there are plenty of people who agree he should receive some punishment, that not enough people think his life should be completely obliterated? And, given you can either do that or do nothing, they’ve chosen to do nothing? Is it even possible that the current batch of predators got away with it for so long for the same reason? Something to chew on, I hope.
To reiterate, I am not saying that current events have devolved into some kind of widespread irrational madness. But I am saying that when things reach a pitch like this, it’s easy to toss aside important safeguards like presumption of innocence, and burden of proof, and being proportional in your response, because the things which have been happening are just so bad. But remember when you’re talking about potential witch hunts, once you start tossing the safeguards out, things almost always get even worse.
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