At the beginning of October, I had a brief moment of feeling sorry for Harvey Weinstein, the first in a long series of men accused of sexual harassment this fall. When I confessed to this on Facebook, most of my friends weren’t impressed with me, and as I continued to read about his conduct in the days and weeks to come, I too was puzzled. Why had I had that moment?
The philosopher Kate Manne hypothesises that most of us are afflicted with “himpathy” – a disproportionate concern for men that arises especially when they have all the marks of privilege. (See her new book Down Girl, which is reviewed in this issue, and also her essay “But Not Him, Surely” — http://bit.ly/2irLfJL.) The himpathy hypothesis would explain, for example, how it could come about that, in 2016, a California judge gave a sentence of six months to Stanford student Brock Turner for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman.
At the movies and in novels we are more often than not presented with male protagonists. Athletes are more often male. Our heroes in politics are usually male, as are our heroes in philosophy. We spend an awful lot of our lives caring about and rooting for and being inspired by men. It could be that this colours our response when a woman accuses a man of harassment or assault.
For some reason, people are listening to the accusers right now. Maybe that’s because of the sheer volume of complaints against celebrities, or because of the “me too” movement, which elicited over a million responses on social media, or because of the frustration of having a serial harasser in the White House, and being able to do nothing about it. It’s a huge breakthrough that accusers are being believed.
But then, I did have that moment. Was it himpathy? I’m not so sure. There are certain scenarios that tend to trigger sympathy for the devil, whether the devil is male or female. Take prison break movies. It’s a common reaction to want the prisoner to make it out, no matter what he or she has done to land in prison. We respond to the person’s desperation, ingenuity, longing for freedom, and deliberately suppress the knowledge of what they did.
Watching a very successful miscreant like Weinstein take a great fall is just the opposite of seeing an inmate take a great leap. So it’s not really so surprising for someone (OK, me) to momentarily sympathise. To the extent that people at the height of success are far more often male, as are people trying to escape from prison, it’s not surprising that sympathy for the devil is more often for men.
But it isn’t invariably for men. Around the time of Weinstein’s fall, The New York Post printed a sad story about Ruth Madoff, now living on a budget in a small apartment, her infamous husband Bernie still in prison, one son gone because of suicide, the other because of cancer. She was probably complicit in Madoff’s crimes, but the article did make me feel sympathy for her.
Around the time of Kevin Spacey’s fall, there was a story about a female teacher in Oklahoma who was apprehended in a particularly humiliating way for having sex with a 15-year-old student. Yes, I felt some sympathy, like I felt a touch of sympathy for Spacey.
We feel sympathy for the devil especially if we focus narrowly on the leap/the fall, and obviously we can’t continually restrict our focus that way. Prisoners are locked up because they hurt someone. Weinstein fell because he tormented women for decades. When I expand my focus, as I certainly should, my sympathy for Weinstein evaporates, and so does my sympathy for most of the other predators who have been in the news.
There are cases, though, and then there are cases. At the present moment costs are being imposed outside of courtrooms. In one sense that tends to make the costs lower for perpetrators. They aren’t being locked up or being sued for vast sums. But it also makes the costs unbounded. There’s no telling how much a person has to lose, and for how long, if they did do something on the harassment-to-assault spectrum.
At the end of November, Garrison Keillor was ejected from Minnesota Public Radio, where he had been a powerhouse for 47 years. It was even determined that his much-loved radio program, which was already under a new host, will no longer be called “The Prairie Home Companion”. Keillor’s infraction, by his account, was putting his hand on a woman’s naked lower back and then moving it up six inches under her shirt.
Perhaps Keillor isn’t telling the whole truth, but if he is, may I feel a moment of sympathy for him? If I do, my sympathy could be due to the fact that Keillor is a very successful person suddenly brought low, or because his punishment isn’t well-calibrated to his crime. Or is it himpathy? Sometimes just having the right word is all it takes to ask a good question.