As the men exposed by the #MeToo movement attempt to step back into the spotlight, they’re learning that their cancellation is permanent: Audiences simply aren’t interested in excuses or explanations. And editors and outlets that give them a platform to do so, from the Comedy Cellar to the New York Review of Books, face opprobrium, wrath, and considerable costs.
Take, for example, the cover story of this latest New York Review of Books—an essay by former Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio host Jian Ghomeshi, entitled “Reflections from a Hashtag.”
In 2014, Ghomeshi was fired after more than 20 women and one man came forward with stories about the host punching, slapping and choking them. Two years later, he was charged, tried, and finally acquitted of multiple charges based on three accusers’ accounts, including sexual assault. (Ghomeshi described the encounters as consensual “rough sex”.)
In the piece, Ghomeshi offered a rambling self-defense and a lament for the life he felt the charges had saddled him with, as an “outcast” and a “hashtag.” He wrote: “There has indeed been enough humiliation for a lifetime.” Days later, Harper’s magazine published a long editorial by disgraced former radio host John Hockenberry, who left WYNC in August 2017, ahead of multiple allegations of sexual harassment from colleagues.
In the New Yorker, Jia Tolentino described this moment of apology tours, in which Louis C.K. has returned to the comedy stage and chef Mario Batali is considering a comeback, in terms of what she calls “patriarchal physics, writing: “The gravitational pull of male power is exerting itself, turning our attention back to the place where it has been trained to linger: the hero’s journey of men.”
But one outcome of the #MeToo movement seems to be that readers and audiences are saying no to this gravitational pull. Amid considerable criticism from readers over the essay’s publication, editor Ian Buruma has left the magazine. It’s not clear whether he resigned or was asked to leave. Harper’s has also faced considerable criticism, particularly after staff members said that their concerns about the essay had been “sidelined and dismissed.”
Some argue that permanent cancellation, especially without a legal basis, is unfair. Television host Bill Maher recently called for Democratic US senator Al Franken to return to politics; comedian Norm Macdonald told The Hollywood Reporter that #MeToo had become: “‘One woman can’t lie.’ And that became, ‘I believe all women.’ And then you’re like, ‘What?’”
These accused men have served their time, they argue. Louis C.K. apologized (sort of), and went into a nine-month period of self-imposed exile. Ghomeshi lost his job. Woody Allen may never release another movie. Do they really deserve what Hockenberry calls “a life sentence of unemployment without possibility of furlough, the suffering of my children, and financial ruin”?
So far, audiences say, the answer is yes.
When it comes to the most serious allegations, it is important to keep in mind that a necessary condition of believing victims is to do so whatever the outcome of a trial. The statistics back it up: If you’re accused of sexual assault, there’s a statistical likelihood that you did do it, and that you won’t be charged for it. As the nonprofit Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network reports, only seven of every 1,000 rapes results in a felony conviction—and only six in incarceration. (In cases of robbery, it’s more like 20 imprisonments.) Though false reports make up between two and 10 percent of all rape allegations, the vast majority of those accused still walk free.
Though it’s true that the workplace harassment accusations against Hockenberry and the sexual assault Ghomeshi was charged with are materially different, both represent a public figure allegedly misusing their status. As Louis C.K. wrote in his statement, “The power I had over these women is that they admired me. And I wielded that power irresponsibly.” It’s not that audiences necessarily want these figures to be barred from earning a living—rather, it isn’t clear that they can be trusted not to misuse that power all over again.
But when outlets such as Harper’s magazine offer these men an opportunity to “explain” themselves, their editorial boards seem to be comfortable to hand them the torch all over again. The particularities of the personal-essay format allow for a platform in which they can seemingly say whatever they want, without being subject to routine editorial scrutiny or even the ordinary fact-checking process. Even New York Magazine’s long-form profile of Allen’s wife Soon-Yi Previn was written not by an impartial party with a critical eye, but by someone firmly in their camp—Daphne Merkin is a longtime friend and admirer of the director. At the same time, the women who spoke out aren’t being hounded for personal essays or given high-profile magazine covers.
In giving attackers or harassers such prominent placement, New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg argues, publishers and editors are suggesting that theirs are the voices that need to be listened to. The implication, she argues, is “that he didn’t do anything all that wrong in the first place, that his accusers are exaggerating, or that his humiliation makes him the real victim.”
Essays such as Hockenberry’s “Exile,” she writes, reveal that these men aren’t interested in restitution, but in why they’re yet to receive absolution: “I feel sorry for a lot of these men, but I don’t think they feel sorry for women, or think about women’s experience much at all.” And until they do, readers are struggling to see why they should afford them either sympathy or forgiveness in return–or support the platforms giving them the chance to explain how they are the ones who have been hurt.