22 Oct 2017

Can We Drum Up Some Empathy for Harvey Weinstein?


Human Sexuality is Complex

I too condemn the actions of Harvey Weinstein. I am also uncomfortable with the response to his actions. Abuse of power, sexual harassment, sexual assault, the casting couch and all that comes with it is wrong. No one can excuse the vile abuse he inflicted on women. I condemn his actions. He must be held accountable for his violations. At the same time, I find the response to his crimes to be incomplete.

I think it would be beneficial to expand our response. My intention is to explore the gaps in the conversation through a psychological, sociological and behavioral lens.

First off, the psychological dynamic.

Power, Sexuality and the Human Condition are a Complex Terrain

Human sexuality is complex. The powerful driving force of desire must of necessity be strong enough to fuel the continuity of our species. As such it manifests in ways many if not all of us find to be challenging. Sexuality and desire are stronger than the super ego. Without subordination to a Higher Power, they are more powerful even than our desire to present as “good people” therein often undoing the social profile we attempt to project to the world.

I’m not speaking of a utopian world-view (more on that in part three.) In the real world, by its essential nature, sexuality is intimately linked with spirituality, creativity and aggression. To try to sever the link is to deny its very nature. And if we want to not only fully understand what has emerged about Weinstein – and Hollywood, the corporate culture and world at large – but to respond in a way that facilitates real healing, we need to bear the underlying power and complexity of the drive in mind.

Empathy and the Demonizing of Harvey Weinstein

Much was said about his vile, predatory and criminal violations. I was struck though by the absence of (dare I say it) empathy. Hold your horses. By empathy I do not mean “condoning.” Just as punishing is not synonymous with demonizing, empathizing is not synonymous with condoning. Harvey Weinstein should be prosecuted and punished for his crimes. But demonized? We cannot condone what he has done. But does that preclude him from empathy?

In her piece, “The fall of Harvey Weinstein should be a moment to challenge extreme masculinity,” Rebecca Solnit addresses empathy in the context of male attacks on women. “Underlying all these attacks is a lack of empathy, a will to dominate, and an entitlement to control, harm and even take the lives of others…There must be terrible loneliness in that failure to perceive or value the humanity of others, the failure of empathy and imagination, to consider oneself the only person who matters. Caring about others, empathising, loving them, liberates each of us; these bereft figures seem to be prisoners of their selfishness before they are punishers of others,” she says.

And yet it appears that empathy for Harvey Weinstein and other perpetrators of violence is not even under consideration.

Just as punishing is not synonymous with demonizing, empathizing is not synonymous with condoning.”

The absence of it reminded me of a passage in Martha Beck’s brilliant book, “Expecting Adam.” She writes of having to go to a hospital during her pregnancy. She knew she was carrying a Down Syndrome child and had chosen to go through with the pregnancy regardless. At the hospital she encountered a male doctor or intern who vigorously tried to persuade her to abort the fetus. Ms. Beck came to understand that his passionate attempts to have her rid her body of Adam were in fact an attempt to exorcise his own vulnerable parts.

By extension, I wonder if the demonizing of Harvey Weinstein is in part an attempt to exorcise our own shame at the hidden life within. Is it a way of avoiding our own weaknesses? As has become painfully apparent over the past few weeks, the scourge of sexual predation is endemic. The predators know who they are. And even those who have not preyed on women having managed to hide their struggle with their own animalistic desires are cognizant of their inner landscape. Are their wagging fingers and acerbic tongues also a means to modulate internal shame? As the weeks go by and evidence of rampant sexual dysfunction across the board becomes known, I am more and more convinced of this current in the torrent of criticism.

The problem with divesting ourselves of discomfort by pointing at others is that we do not fix the problem either for ourselves or them. What might we effect if we got quiet and turned inwards, examining the ways in which we have been triggered, exploring our own sexual appetite and ability to engage in physical relations that are not just physical but intimate and sacred?

Shaming Cements the Problem Rather than Solving It

It’s an inconvenient truth: You cannot shame someone into healing.

Harvey Weinstein is an ill man. Is he an addict? Or was he (exclusively) abusing power to satiate a voracious appetite for sex and more power? My guess is both – the latter in part being an outgrowth of the former. Which leaves us with the question as to how to respond to dysfunction so as to cultivate healing.

On tour about a year ago, I read an article in a magazine left in my hotel room on how to help others deal with sexual addiction. A line from it rang true: “Sexual addiction thrives in secret. Shame sets it in cement.” Yes. Shaming might assuage our personal discomfort but it neither moves us nor the object of our shaming to cleaner healing.

In taking a more holistic response we do not condone the wrongs done. Condoning cannot bring solutions. To the contrary, as the Talmud teaches, identifying an illness, proper diagnosis, is half the healing. How then do we condemn without solidifying the very inclination we intend to heal?

Sexual addiction thrives in secret. Shame sets it in cement.”

The easier-said-than-done answer is to decry the sin but not the sinner. No individual, even a criminal, is exclusively bad, pure evil. Albeit the soul is exiled within the body and manifest consciousness, it is there. Created in the Divine image as is that of every person who has ever lived. To bring healing, we have to decry the action and simultaneously awaken compassion for the soul of the perpetrator which is so exiled as to allow for the improper action to have occurred.

Without that element of compassion, we demonize the other. And demonizing – through flattening the sinner by disavowing them of the total complexity of who they are, by taping them shut with labels, catch phrases or slogans – short-circuits the conversation, suppresses healing and thereby causes it to fester and grow in the dark dankness of shame and silence.

I found two paragraphs in Melanie Phillips’ article Harvey Weinstein and the Breakdown of the Traditional Family to be particularly pertinent apropos the need for empathy. She says (italics mine):

“I also suspect that at the root of this issue of power lies a paradox. Years ago, I was told by a prison therapist about a striking discovery he had repeatedly made amongst the inmates he was treating. When he asked some of the most dangerous and savage killers about their family backgrounds, they wept in utter terror like small children when they relived their relationship with one or both of their own parents. These men, who had exercised the most extreme abuses of the power they had so mercilessly wielded for decades within their own communities, had done so because they actually felt powerless.

“If you look at tyrants throughout history, you often find that the person who has exercised untrammelled power and committed the most appalling crimes against other people was himself driven by intense feelings of inadequacy, self-disgust and powerlessness.”

Counterintuitive and profound. Powerlessness fuels violence. Those who feel most disempowered act in the most violent and harmful ways. If we want to effectively treat criminals, we must bear in mind and heart all that brought them to where they are. The context does not justify their deeds. But understanding it can soften our hearts and therein facilitate a more useful response.

Which circles back to my opening question. Can we not find even a smidgen of compassion for Harvey Weinstein?

Check Your Intentions at the Door

Pause is urged not just in relating to the object of our criticism but in looking at our own selves too. When calling out others, we have to be cautious that our intentions are pure. A great teacher once commented on the lesson to be learned from an injection. Just as both the needle and skin must be sterilized, so too in giving rebuke both the giver and receiver must be “clean.” By way of analogy that means the person being spoken to should be receptive to the rebuke and the one speaking must do so with purity of intent.

These men, who had exercised the most extreme abuses of the power they had so mercilessly wielded for decades within their own communities, had done so because they actually felt powerless.”

With regard to Mr. Weinstein, possibly a handful of individuals are in a position to personally offer him either rebuke or advice. Only those who retain access to the point of light within him, who care for his wellbeing as well as that of the world. But even though we are not those individuals, we still enter into public discourse by way of processing his actions (and the larger pathology) for ourselves. This is necessary and cathartic. In doing so, let’s check our intentions. I have no doubt that women have spoken up to bring to the fore the malaise of the casting couch and broader sexual dysfunction in society at large. But now that Harvey Weinstein has fallen from grace, is there possibly a strain of revenge for some? Is there also (even the slightest) pleasure point that drives the allegations and condemnations? Now that he has fallen, the women he violated can “get back at him.” Are some – not all…some – doing that? Do we do that in our own lives? Society does better without revenge. Litigate and pursue justice. It is an obligation. But do not take revenge.

The Greater the Person the Greater the Inclination for Evil

Two last interconnected truths about the human condition for now: We cannot judge another until we are in their place. And the greater the person, the greater their challenges.

I learned a profound lesson from a spiritual master on the Mishnaic exhortation to not judge another until we have reached their place. He taught that the emphasis here is on “until we have reached their place.” We can never actually put ourselves in the place of the other. We try but at best we project ourselves onto them. We imagine ourselves in their situation. All of which boils down to the sage’s urging to not judge others.

This is not about moral relativism. I am not saying evil is good. Not at all. A crime is criminal. Abuse is terrible. Evil is evil. What I am saying is that none of us knows another’s circumstances. We have neither their body nor soul nor upbringing. Thus whereas we can and must condemn actions, we cannot judge the individual.

If you cannot comprehend the bad another has brought about, that’s a clear indication that you do not have the greatness they hold within.”

What we do know is that in the interests of free choice and fairness the scales are balanced. The Talmud teaches, “Whoever is greater than his fellow, his inclination for evil is also greater.” In every place and every time, every individual who has accomplished great things has had to overcome enormous obstacles to get there. The corollary of this truth is that those who enact vile deeds have the capacity for goodness of equal magnitude within themselves. So if you cannot comprehend the bad another has brought about, that’s a clear indication that you do not have the greatness they hold within.

I have never seen a movie by Mr. Weinstein but as evidenced by the power he wielded and the accolades and awards he garnered, he was (and still is) a remarkably gifted person. Those gifts are not given to anyone for free. They came bundled with loads of challenges. It is true that none of us is given more than we can handle. “According to the camel is the load” is a teaching that comes to mind. That is why he, and any other criminal, is accountable for his actions and liable for punishment. It simultaneously helps explain his epic failure. Mediocre potential will generate only mediocre failures. Epic potential fosters epic failure. We would serve ourselves and others better by bearing in mind that we can never grasp another’s full inner landscape, how much more so the struggle or greatness of a soul that brings about suffering that is beyond our ability to comprehend. According to the camel is the load. Harvey Weinstein is a heavyweight.

All this is complex and messy. As Oliver Burkeman states in his book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, “Don’t look for a book sized solution to the problem of being human.” I’m game. Let’s not put this in a book. Let’s expand our response to Harvey Weinstein. We must allow for the full gamut of what it means to be human.

In part 2, I explore the sociological dynamics, the connection between money and sex, and driving dearth of meaning as I understand them. In Part 3, I look at the backlash against Mayim Bialik and Donna Karan in light of our attachment to Utopian ideals.