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Leonhardt: A conspiracy of inaction on sexual abuse

By David Leonhardt

New York Times News Service

Published on November 6, 2017 1:56PM

Last changed on November 6, 2017 1:57PM


I caught the journalism bug in high school. I was fortunate to be a scholarship student at a rigorous New York private school with a weekly newspaper, and some of the older students I admired taught me the power that the written word could have.

When we complained verbally to teachers or administrators about a problem, they could ignore us. When we put our arguments in writing, they tended to pay attention. So we became teenage crusaders, inveighing against perceived injustices. Sometimes, the subjects were sophomoric (“censorship” of the talent show), but often they were serious (inequality, racism, South African divestment).

Three decades later, I look back on the experience with deep gratitude. I also look back with haunting regret.

For all of our crusading, we ignored the biggest story at the school. We were aware of the rumors — the teachers who made comments about girls’ bodies, the teacher suspiciously friendly with female students, the music teacher solicitous of male students.

But we never wrote about it. As best as I can remember, we didn’t even talk about writing about it. We didn’t know how. It seemed too dark, too uncertain.

In 2012, the truth came out. My school — Horace Mann — had tolerated sexual molestation for decades. Administrators whose most solemn responsibility was protecting children instead chose to look the other way and protect child abusers. The music teacher, a cultish figure named Johannes Somary, was the worst abuser during my time. One of his victims later committed suicide.

The current torrent of harassment revelations — following Jodi Kantor’s and Megan Twohey’s New York Times exposé of Harvey Weinstein — has caused me to think back on high school again, because every big case has had something in common with Horace Mann.

People knew.

Even if they didn’t know the details — I didn’t know what Somary was actually doing — they knew that something was wrong. At Fox News, many knew that Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly mistreated women. At ABC, The New Republic and NPR, respectively, people talked about the harassment by Mark Halperin, Leon Wieseltier and Michael Oreskes. In Hollywood, people talked about Weinstein and Kevin Spacey — not to mention Donald Trump, who nonetheless became a heavily promoted reality star.

As the screenwriter Scott Rosenberg has written about Weinstein, “Everybody knew.” (The full quotation includes a colloquial adverb of emphasis between “everybody” and “knew.”)

“Maybe we didn’t know the degree. The magnitude of the awfulness,” Rosenberg continued. “But we knew something.”

And yet no one did anything about it. People were afraid to, or didn’t know how. So they — we — became part of an unwitting conspiracy of inaction.

This conspiracy has spanned the relatively powerless, like interns, secretaries and teenagers, to the wealthy and famous, as well as every level of power in between. Jill Abramson, my old boss, is one of the toughest journalists I know. Still, as a midlevel manager two decades ago, she didn’t go over the head of her old boss — Oreskes — to report his behavior at The Times, as she regretfully said last week.

Post-Weinstein, the emphasis has been on holding other abusers accountable. So far, each seems to deserve his delayed consequences. (And, yes, the severity of the various abuses varies.) I hope the exposés continue.

But post facto truth and punishment are not enough. We also need to figure out how to prevent future abuse. We need to make inaction feel unacceptable.

Doing so will require changes from both organizations and individuals. Every workplace and school should be asking itself: Do people here know how to report a suspicion of abuse? Do they feel comfortable doing so even when, as is typical, they have only an incomplete sense of it?

At most places, the answers remain no and no.

Organizations need “multiple, accessible avenues of complaint,” as a federal task force concluded. These avenues should be blazingly obvious, not buried in a corporate policy that nobody reads. They should include anonymous reporting options. They should feed into a process that’s confidential and fair, including to the accused.

Every leader should also read case studies, to understand how frequently other leaders, at Horace Mann, NPR and elsewhere, have bungled these situations, usually through cowardice. Often, a victim or someone else did summon the courage to come forward, only to have the institution do little or nothing.

But the changes can’t be only about policies and organizations. They need to be personal, too. I’m guessing that you get angry when you think about the abuse committed by Weinstein, O’Reilly, Trump or Somary — about the long-lasting misery they have inflicted on other human beings. I certainly do.

The next time I see something that doesn’t seem quite right, I’m going to remember that anger. One conspiracy of inaction is more than enough for a lifetime.

David Leonhardt is an op-ed columnist for The New York Times.



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