Former New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman is only the latest ally of feminists to turn out to be an accused abuser as well. In recent weeks, we’ve also learned of a prominent liberal tech consultant, Clay Johnson, whose career was not at all derailed by rape allegations and sexist verbal abuse. Multiple women have accused MacArthur “genius grant” winner Junot Díaz, a rape survivor, of actions ranging from unwanted kisses to rageful outbursts. Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.) is facing an ethics investigation for allegedly sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl.
I repeat these examples (with the knowledge that every step backward in time would add more to the list) not to highlight any particularly egregious irony but to underscore the uselessness of trying to segregate sexism — and sexual violence — by ideology.
There is no ideological monopoly on misogyny or patriarchy or sexual harm, a fact that most women have learned from bitter experience. I’m not so naive as to believe that a man’s voting record is going to be predictive of his potential for violence. That he seems to go to the same political rallies as I doesn’t mean he won’t draw me into an inappropriate conversation. The cool bumper stickers on his car won’t guarantee my safety if he drives slowly by while I’m on my evening run. And whenever I hear about the latest political comrade or well-respected colleague to be the subject of other women’s stories, I am never surprised when his actions do not match up with his attested ideals. When the difference is great, I am only disappointed. Surprise is the privilege of someone who has never been assaulted by someone they know.
So I suspect it is mostly men who are fascinated by the overblown irony in anyone’s descent from hero of the #MeToo movement to a culprit caught up in its rough justice. On the right, this fascination has taken the form of mainly resurrecting the left’s unfortunately quasi-romantic swoons over Schneiderman (see the coverage of a Samantha Bee segment literally engaging in Schneiderman hero-worship). But the liberal left has its set of those who want to revisit these falls from grace, as well: Ryan Murphy wants to make a show about them!
Schneiderman’s fall was particularly steep, and the details of his story have provided political enemies with irresistible opportunities for schadenfreude. But rather than draw some broad lesson about hypocrisy, the specific tragedy surrounding Schneiderman suggests that those who are serious about ending sexual violence stop pointing fingers, or stroking chins, and start looking in the mirror.
Whether Schneiderman (or any other man in his situation, with his record) was “really” the #resistance warrior he appeared to be or “really” a hateful thug isn’t as important as the fact that he could be both of these things at the same time. How he managed to contain and sustain these opposites isn’t as important as how he reportedly gaslighted his targets into inaction, catching them between his gallant crusader public persona and his cruel intimacies. He may be complicated, or have a chemical-dependency issue, or he may be an exceptionally talented liar. What men (and many women) need to realize is that the protection against allegations of abuse afforded by having the “right” political attitudes is not something granted by the attitudes themselves, but by the people who share them. Believing that women should get equal pay for equal work or be able to make their own reproductive choices or even personally campaigning against domestic violence can’t stop a man from raising his hand against his partner behind closed doors. But progressives believing that any one man’s work is more important than the marks he makes on a woman’s body can keep us from taking action.
That Schneiderman’s former romantic partners say he engaged in his abusive behavior primarily under the influence of drugs or alcohol (the same is true for consultant Johnson) should force progressive-minded men and women into urgent self-reflection: It suggests that the right set of circumstances can undo the inhibitions of even the most strident supporter of the #MeToo agenda. Just as the proper political position can’t be insulation against accusation, the correct beliefs won’t necessarily restrain one’s behavior. Anyone who truly wants the #MeToo movement to expand should be prepared to examine his or her own past with the same degree of rigor that journalists have used to examine the histories of household names.
Obviously, not all or most or even many allies of the movement — men or women — have committed sins on the scale of what Schneiderman is accused of. But many of us have been guilty, at one time or another, of enabling those sins in the name of ambitions both large and small. We are the people who told Schneiderman’s girlfriend not to say anything about his alleged violence because he was “too valuable a politician for the Democrats to lose.” We’re the co-worker who heard that Johnson assaulted a colleague and, in the moment, “really wasn’t sure what you do,” only to realize with hindsight, “It’s pretty simple” — you report the jerk, and keep reporting until someone listens.
The individual transgressions of these would-be confederates are the product of personal choices and perhaps even genuine sickness, the individual consequences of which deserve individual redress and amends. What needs more general public scrutiny is the context in which such behavior continued for so long. Society doesn’t make any one person abuse another, but social structures enable men to get away with it — and only individuals can put that to an end.