The common thread of sexual harassers’ apologies is narcissism

From Louis CK to Charlie Rose, apologies in this grim year were rarely about the victims

Louis CK: in his apology he used the word “I” 36 times in 26 sentences

Louis CK: in his apology he used the word “I” 36 times in 26 sentences

 

#MeToo ripped through 2017. Women – and men – broke their silence and out poured a volcanic rage engulfing Silicon Valley, Hollywood, the media, the restaurant industry and politics. They told stories, so many stories, about sexual harassment.

In their wake came statements of regret from the accused. Upon scrutiny these crumbled into dust.

And so 2017 was marked by a series of terrible apologies by Goliaths who had been exposed, this time unwillingly, as harassers. This year has shown that there is no perfect way to apologise for inappropriate requests, gropes or assaults. But there are plenty of wrong ways.

Harvey Weinstein produced a model of the bad apology. His opening declaration set the tone for an onslaught of wrongness.

“I came of age in the 1960s and 1970s when all the rules about behaviour and workplaces were different. That was the culture then.”

This is a common line of defence by men who claim to be hopeless dinosaurs, out of touch with changing sensibilities. First, that excuse only works if all men of the same age think it is okay to ruin a woman’s career if she refuses their advances. Second, while some women might have put up with it in the past, that does not mean they liked or wanted it. Quite the opposite.

Yet there is also a kind of selective evolution at play here. Harassers, particularly ones who are proud of their professional acumen, manage to stay attuned to so many developments in the business world – the arrival of disruptive technologies, say, or of new overseas markets. Yet they are blind to changes in workplace behaviour. Such blindness seems wilful.

Path to enlightenment

Mr Weinstein’s apology also included the pledge that he was embarking on therapy. This is a trope that has been reiterated by numerous other apologists. Being caught becomes “a voyage of self-discovery”, as if lunging at a colleague is the first step on the path to enlightenment.

Charlie Rose, a journalist and talk show host, lost his job in November after he was accused of harassment and said he had “learned a great deal as a result of these events”. Then he turned it into a generous gift – a teachable moment for everybody else – as he wrote that he hoped that “others will [learn] too”.

He continued: “All of us, including me, are coming to a newer and deeper recognition of the pain caused by conduct in the past, and have come to a profound new respect for women and their lives.”

The common denominator in all these apologies is narcissism. That these men were so entitled that they thought they could behave as they wished was always the problem. These apologies are self-indulgent me-pologies: all about the perpetrator, not about the victims.

I picked a few me-pologies to see how many times they used the word “I”.

Harvey Weinstein’s count was 37 times in 26 sentences; Charlie Rose used the word 14 times in eight sentences, and Louis CK, the comedian who was accused of harassment in November, 36 times in 26 sentences (although one was in the title of his new film, I Love You, Daddy, which is now shelved).

Unwanted emails

I talked to a friend about her most recent experience of harassment, at a small company that employed no newsworthy stars.

It was not a headline-grabbing assault. It was a drip, drip, drip of unwanted emails about her appearance, sent to her work and personal accounts, supplemented by texts at weekends.

She caught her harasser surreptitiously taking pictures of her. Colleagues joked about his shrine to her at home. When she told the human resources department, they just warned her to be careful. In the end she left the company.

A few months later, her former employer got back in touch. Inevitably, her harasser had started on other women.

After she heard that he had left, I asked whether she wanted him to apologise. No. She had heard enough from him – she just wanted to be heard herself.

That made me think of two bright spots in Louis CK’s apology. These were simply: “These stories are true” and “I will ... take a long time to listen.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017

Pilita Clark is away

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