Harvey Weinstein case confronts us with an uncomfortable truth
Few of us are immune to the cowardice that enabled Weinstein’s behaviour
An alleged victim of Harvey Weinstein, Mimi Haleyi, at a press conference held by attorney Gloria Allred in New York recently. Photograph: Mike Coppola/Getty Images
Revelations about the inappropriate, violating and bullying sexual behaviour of producer and former film executive Harvey Weinstein have continued to ooze forth, like pus from a suppurating wound that needs draining, since they were first revealed in the New York Times on October 5th.
As more details of his appalling conduct and abuse of power scuttle out into the light (thanks to the many women who took the risk of giving their accounts), the news and opinion coverage mounts.
That word – the first one I wrote above – is repeated over and over again. Revelations. In biblical terms, the Book of Revelation is the one apocalyptic document in the New Testament canon (although you’ll find equally apocalyptic shorter passages elsewhere). The book makes for some pretty trippy reading, but that idea of a previously hidden truth being revealed runs throughout. In common parlance, the word “revelation” has similar connotations of the act of revealing, or making something known, particularly something shocking or important. To have a revelatory experience is to be blindsided.
This is precisely why the word is so ill-suited to the allegations of Weinstein’s behaviour over decades. Although the scale of his abuse does indeed seem almost biblical, the rather cynical consensus is that everyone knew, and that those who knew something, but not everything, are not surprised. We don’t encounter revelatory truth, shrug, and figure “makes sense”. This information is not a revelation; it is the distasteful muck that slimes out when a boil everyone had been deliberately ignoring is summarily popped.
Now, the mess is everywhere, and people with both longstanding and tenuous connections to Weinstein are scrambling to denounce him before they look complicit. This is in direct contrast to the deafening silence that hung over Hollywood for several days after the original New York Times piece ran. People were waiting to see whether the wind would turn. When it didn’t, and didn’t look likely to, the loquacious denunciations came.
Of course, in these sorts of situations, many people are relatively powerless. Those most pragmatically able to make people like Weinstein accountable are his victims, yet most of them didn’t have the power to do so. He is by all accounts notoriously vengeful, and the prospect of never working again would be more than enough to squash most people who, in the moment, would not have a concrete sense that they were not the only one. It is also difficult to know what to do in a scenario where you hear rumours but have no evidence.
They are certainly not enough to go to the police with, and talking pejoratively about someone on the basis of rumours opens you up to both being wrong and slanderous. Not to mention that it is morally wrong to make accusations against someone when all you have is unsubstantiated rumour. That sort of thing can and does ruin innocent people’s lives, and won’t necessarily help bring guilty people to justice.
There is an argument to be made that anyone (even victims), who has enough concrete information to bring down someone like Weinstein, has a moral and epistemic duty to try. It’s not a very popular argument, and there is one countering it that suggests that having something terrible inflicted on an individual through no fault of their own should not create a duty for them. However, in the case of Weinstein’s abuse, there were those who knew about wrongdoing, possessed facts and power, and still avoided action. Quentin Tarantino, for one, has expressed regret that he didn’t act on what he knew, citing the potential cost to his career as the reason for his silence. He was not the only such person.
It is easy to be judgmental of others, but there is a discomfiting truth to be swallowed here by all of us. People regularly do the opposite of what they believe, or attest to believe. In doing this, we enable those who behave monstrously, or merely poorly, around us. Usually, in behaving this way, we thankfully aren’t made complicit in behaviour as catastrophically damaging as Weinstein’s, but if we can’t flex that muscle in minor scenarios, it will be too weak to withstand larger pressures, and we might find ourselves hiding behind that lying word – “revelations”.