America has a history of moral panics. The Salem witch trials, prohibition, Jerry Falwell’s “moral majority”—knee-jerk reactions to a fear of societal decay. A moral panic can be prudent, or it can be horribly misguided. But all moral panics involve a moral ingroup driving out a supposedly immoral outgroup.
At present, we are in a moral panic. The societal decay we fear? That influential men may take advantage of aspiring women with impunity. What began as the disgracing of the piggish Harvey Weinstein has ballooned into a movement to purge all sexual offenders. The campaign even has its own hashtag, #MeToo, attesting to how deeply sexual harassment and assault pervade American society.
In the past several weeks, we’ve witnessed scores of prominent men in media, journalism, entertainment, politics, and business accused of lecherous sexual behavior. Many of the allegations are deeply troubling. Evidence strongly suggests that Roy Moore, the Republican Senate candidate in Alabama, had a sickening affinity for underaged girls. Kevin Spacey, an actor, allegedly assaulted, harassed, or attempted to rape at least 15 men, some of them underaged boys. Weinstein himself will likely be charged with rape.
Such cases make the stomach churn. At best, Moore and Spacey and Weinstein are despicable filth. At worst, they are criminals. Yet the bulk of the emerging sexual assault accusations are not so extreme. Take the actor Ben Affleck, who admitted to groping a woman in 2003. Affleck’s conduct is odious and possibly illegal. It is, however, a far cry from Moore’s alleged pedophilia or Weinstein’s alleged rape.
The popular story arc has tended to lump together those like Affleck with those like Weinstein. But even among the despicable, distinctions matter: Weinstein’s sins are inarguably worse than Affleck’s. Glossing over these differences risks drifting toward a nihilistic view of sexual assault, one where all accusations carry the same weight. That would only minimize the severity of the most heinous sexual offenses. Proportion must be maintained. The punishment for a rapist or pedophile should be harsh. The punishment for a pervy groper less so.
Visibly absent from the current political conversation has been any such notion of proportionality. Minnesota Senator Al Franken, who has admitted to groping several women, is tossed willy-nilly into op-eds alongside the likes of Moore and Weinstein. And though Franken’s behavior is foul and indefensible, this sort of conflation risks undermining the power of the #MeToo movement. Its potency lies in the fact it is a broad-based, apolitical attempt to expose ugly truths about America. But if the movement in any way draws moral equivalency between a rapist and a pervert, the popular backing it enjoys will fade.
Worse still would be if the message of #MeToo becomes associated with the political left. Democrats should work with Republicans to thoroughly investigate Franken and punish him accordingly. Expelling him from the Senate should be kept on the table. That said, his punishment ought to be in line with his misdeeds. There is an acute danger that the Democrats attempt to overcorrect, making #MeToo seem more like a mania than a movement.
Republicans, meanwhile, have largely disowned Moore. Those who have not are destroying what little moral credibility they may have left. Moore—who displays a penchant for lawlessness—is deeply unqualified to hold any public office. If he is elected, he must be promptly expelled.
Sexual assault/harassment is not one party’s problem. It’s the country’s problem.
— (((Harry Enten))) (@ForecasterEnten) November 16, 2017
Moral panics, in their worst form, are little more than scorched-earth frenzies. But they can also highlight real social maladies. It is not yet clear what kind of moral panic we find ourselves in. The #MeToo movement promises to rid America of a sexist rot which permeates deep in our fabric. But that promise hinges on cool heads and good judgment.
It is all too tempting to indulge in a frustrated throw-them-all-in-jail mentality. This would backfire. More productive would be to engage with those around us. Regrettably, victims of sexual assault span all of American society, each with a story that deserves to be heard. We should listen.