There’s a consensus aborning: There should be zero tolerance for sexual harassment, exploitation and violence of any kind. Enthusiasm for the new dawn varies widely. Some think it’s a great feminist or moral awakening. Others see an era of witch hunts, prudery and weaponized politics in our future.
Put me down for all of the above.
As a conservative, this seems natural to me. Almost every good thing comes with a downside, and virtually every bad thing comes with an upside.
We’ve seen cultural, political and religious awakenings before. The abolition movement also brought with it John Brown. Prohibition had some positive (though hotly debated) effects on public health, and the temperance movement helped pave the way for women’s suffrage. Anti-communism was a good thing in my book, but no one can honestly dispute that it had its unfortunate excesses.
Whenever popular passion swamps politics, true-believing zealots and opportunistic demagogues will exploit that passion. The zealots will overreach. The demagogues will demagogue — using a good cause to destroy political enemies and defend unworthy allies.
Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore is credibly accused by nine women of preying on teenagers, one as young as 14. Harvey Weinstein is credibly accused by at least 50 women of a long list of offenses, including rape. Democratic Sen. Al Franken has been accused by two women of inappropriate advances or groping.
These are just the recent lowlights. A host of prominent journalists as well as Hollywood actors, writers and producers have been accused of varying degrees of misconduct.
We shouldn’t stand for any of it. And yet, the severity of our intolerance should run on a spectrum. Rape should put you in jail. Making a pass at a subordinate in the workplace should have consequences. Making one at a bar? It depends. Taking harassment seriously also requires making serious distinctions.
The problem is that the logic of zero tolerance often renders every bad act as equally unacceptable.
As much as I dislike Franken, making a gross pass at an adult woman is different than molesting a 14-year-old girl. Groping a woman’s backside is not the same thing as raping a woman. And yet Franken’s name is routinely listed alongside Moore’s and Weinstein’s. Some of this leveling is simply journalistic laziness. But a lot of it is partisan demagoguery and opportunism.
Partisanship also leads to what you might call anti-leveling: people who ignore wrongdoing on “their side” even as they attack their enemies.
Some Republicans insist that Franken must resign but say that the people of Alabama should decide what to do about Moore. (Meanwhile, Sen. Bernie Sanders says the people of Minnesota should determine Franken’s fate.)
When asked why people should judge the accusations against Moore and President Trump differently than accusations against Franken and others, the White House says Moore and Trump’s denials inoculate them from condemnation or any practical consequences.
Denials should matter, and accusations absent additional evidence should invite skepticism. But the upshot here is that alleged miscreants should simply deny rather than admit wrongdoing and apologize. According to this logic, Bill Clinton deserved the benefit of every doubt until he was finally forced by the evidence to admit (some of) his misdeeds.
Worse, implicit to the White House argument is that on-the-record testimony from victims doesn’t count as evidence, even when corroborated by testimony from confidantes.
But the most dangerous and corrupting force in all of this is not the weaponization of bad behavior, but the weaponization of hypocrisy. The pastor Franklin Graham even argues that the real villains are Moore’s critics, who “are guilty of doing much worse than” what Moore has supposedly done.
This obsession with hypocrisy leads to a repugnant immorality. In an effort to defend members of their team, partisans end up defending the underlying behavior itself. After all, you can only be a hypocrite if you violate some principle you preach. If you ditch the principle, you can dodge the hypocrisy charge. We’re seeing this happen in real time with some of Moore’s defenders, just as we saw it with Clinton’s in the 1990s.
We’ll sort it all out eventually, but not before it gets even uglier.
Jonah Goldberg is an editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him in care of this newspaper or by email at [email protected]