How we decide which powerful men to forgive — and which ones we kick to the curb
Harvey Weinstein is toast, while Woody Allen thrives.
As Hollywood, the media and Capitol Hill purge their alleged predators post-Weinstein, the men previously accused — their careers intact — stick out like sore thumbs. The sun may have set on confessed sexual harasser Louis C.K’s career, but Allen — the apparent inspiration for the comic’s ill-fated latest film, and long ago accused of molesting his adopted daughter — still attracts A-list casts. A poll after Sen. Al Franken’s groping allegations showed nearly half of Democrats thought he should resign; meanwhile, Alabama Senate hopeful Roy Moore is polling above his opponent despite accusations he molested, assaulted or harassed teens in the ’70s.
What compels us to kick some public figures to the curb, even as we forgive or blithely ignore others’ sordid pasts? Here’s what media psychologists Nancy Mramor and Pamela Rutledge had to say.
They’re tied up in your identity. You like this person, but others are saying he did a bad thing. Your choice, then, is either to ignore the evidence or quit liking that person, Rutledge said. “When someone attacks the person … why you might ignore that is if you have a lot of your identity or what you care about invested in the image of a person, or your perception of a person.” Some voters disregarded sexual assault allegations against President Trump, for instance, because he symbolized to them an upheaval of the political establishment. By hanging onto that symbolic image of someone, she added, “you can maintain your own belief system. You ignore something to preserve your identity.”
They hold one of your key values. “Let’s say you are pro-life — and a Republican senator is accused of all sorts of sexual misconduct, but they’re pro-life,” Mramor said. “You’re much more likely to forgive them.” Mramor defines a “key value” as one you hold most dear: “You can forgive anything if they’re carrying that,” she said. In defense of Moore, for example, an Alabama state auditor argued that “Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter.” “If one of your key values is Christianity, he has certainly turned it into a Christian issue,” Mramor said.
Their reputation. “Truthfully, I think if you look at his body of work, (Allen) has always told you that he’s not a mentally healthy person,” Mramor said. “I think people kind of figured he was not a stable person in the first place.” Though “nobody thought it was OK,” she added, “I just don’t think anyone was actually surprised that he lives the way that he writes.”
Their alleged actions strike a personal chord. If something is salient — meaning it’s more prominent or relevant to you because of personal experience — it can trigger you, said Mramor. A woman who has experienced sexual harassment, for example, would have less tolerance for a man accused of sexual harassment.
The timing. Allen is “old news,” Rutledge said. “It is true that Woody Allen is still making films — but his laundry’s already been aired. If this all had came about right now, what would happen? … Would we revisit it differently?” Same goes for Bill Clinton, who weathered a series of 90s-era allegations including a rape accusation. “Looking at it from today’s eyes, how does he stay in office?”
We’re much more likely to get emotionally involved in charges that are “new, that we can understand in the context of today, than trying to go back and make sense of something that happened five, 10, 20 years ago,” Rutledge added. Weinstein’s and Moore’s allegations span several decades, of course, but “we’re finding out today … so it’s a ‘today’ issue.”
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