A quarter of a century ago, all of America was transfixed by a singular event: the Senate confirmation hearings of justice Clarence Thomas. A nominee of president George Bush senior, Thomas was forced to defend himself during the hearing against charges by Anita Hill, a former employee, of pervasive sexual harassment.
The high-profile hearings, which were recreated in a recently released HBO movie, Confirmation, were broadcast live to a nation that was by turns shocked, then sickened by what it heard.
In the moment, viewers seemed to witness a crushing defeat for both the woman who brought the charges, and for all those who felt her humiliation and powerlessness. The judiciary committee, led by then senator and now vice president Joe Biden, bungled the proceedings. It failed to call corroborating witnesses, among other questionable decisions. Under the cover of a he-said, she-said stalemate, the Senate went on to confirm Thomas in October 1991.
But history teaches us that when something rotten at the core of society is revealed, it can lead to change, however imperfect. The Thomas hearings had a galvanizing effect, shining a light on workplace sexual harassment and moving us closer to the day when it would no longer be tolerated. During the credits for the movie, viewers are reminded that elections later that year tripled the number of women in the Senate. Women in the House increased by 60%. Claims of harassment filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission doubled. And slowly but surely, corporations took steps to stamp out sexual harassment.
Meanwhile, Biden, in what must surely have been an act of penance, went on to sponsor the Violence Against Women Act, and today leads president Barack Obama’s initiative to reduce sexual violence on university campuses.
Surveying today’s societal landscape, it is unquestionable that we have better mechanisms to achieve social change. At first blush, it may seem that those mechanisms rest largely in how we communicate. Back then, the public discourse was mediated through a limited funnel of national broadcast and print media. Today, it’s propagated via the ubiquitous, uncontrollable networks of social media. Hill’s experience took an unspoken problem and made it public in a single, electrifying—albeit long overdue—moment. In the age of Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter, we don’t have public silence punctuated by a communal revelation. The conversations are continuous, and many.
But there is a more profound difference that extends beyond technological change. In the case of Hill, the elite—a Senate panel of powerful white men—had, for too long, failed to lead. When unanticipated events took the decision out of their paternalistic hands, their regressive views were put on display, and they eventually would have to fall in line.
Today, the people who occupy many of those traditional seats of establishment power—president Obama, Hillary Clinton, attorney general Loretta Lynch, justice Sonia Sotomayor—are no longer a homogeneous group of white men.
Equally notable, the authority vested in those elites has changed. Their imprimatur is far less important for a societal problem to be recognized as such. Change bubbles up from the people. In 1991, Angela Wright, a witness who would have corroborated Anita Hill’s testimony, needed permission from the Senate panel to speak—permission that was never granted. Today, those, like Wright who want to speak truth to power simply post a blog entry and wait for it to go viral.
That diffusion of power is a good thing when you consider, say, the speed with which the campaign to legalize gay marriage changed the law in America.
Currently, social media is giving populist voice to another cause, that of transgender rights. The plight of this discriminated-against group gained mainstream attention with a 2014 TV drama, Transparent, and then a year later, when Caitlyn (formerly Bruce) Jenner shared her transition story.
Protections for transgender Americans have expanded rapidly. Most recently, two departments of the Obama administration, education and health, ruled that schools and health care providers can’t discriminate against their charges on the basis of gender identity.
It seems that in today’s world a hashtag is far more powerful than the spectacle of a nationally televised Senate committee hearing. Chalk up another one for social media.