We are in the middle of a feminist revolution. All around us, powerful and famous men are being accused of sexual harassment and assault, and they’re facing real consequences – not just apologizing, but losing jobs and opportunities, ceding their positions of power and prospects for continued celebrity. The word “Weinstein” is practically an obscenity. Kevin Spacey, despite his effort to deflect assault accusations by coming out, is persona non grata in Hollywood. Louis C.K.’s latest film was canceled and his shows have been pulled. Steve Wynn resigned from his namesake company. Condé Nast cut ties with famed fashion photographers Mario Testino and Bruce Weber. James Franco might have been denied an Oscar nomination due to allegations. Even members of the Trump White House — not exactly a bastion of feminism or personal accountability — are losing their jobs over domestic violence allegations.
Some of these men have issued statements attempting to apologize and take responsibility. Weinstein checked into rehab, and reportedly was hoping for a second chance in Hollywood. And after the dust settles and these men spend a few months or a years out of the spotlight, some of them will undoubtedly attempt returns to their previous positions.
Before they do, we must reckon with the questions of forgiveness, rehabilitation and redemption. Can these men be redeemed? And what does redemption — or just forgiveness — look like?
For those of us who care about social justice (and legal justice), these are crucial concepts. While the American criminal justice system is largely punitive, liberals are always pushing to make it more focused on rehabilitation and to help offenders successfully re-enter society — and for society to welcome them back. We criticize the prison system, the industrialization of prisons and the financial incentives they create to increase incarceration rates. We oppose the disenfranchisement of felons. We want to “ban the box,” so that people who have served their time do not need to disclose on college or job applications that they’ve been incarcerated. Some of us (myself included) oppose post-release punishments, including overly broad sex offender registries and laws barring certain categories of sex offenders from living in many places. The result of these laws is that many of these offenders end up unemployed and homeless.
And many of us believe that people who have committed even the most heinous crimes can be redeemed. Consider Michelle Jones, a teenage rape and abuse victim who served more than 20 years for the murder of her 4-year-old disabled son, Brandon Sims. In prison, she became a recognized published scholar. When she applied to graduate school, she was initially admitted to a history PhD program at Harvard. Her acceptance was rescinded, however, because of her crime. Jones ended up attending New York University, but there was an immediate outcry from academics and the left. Even Diane Marger Moore, the original prosecutor on the case, called Harvard’s decision “inappropriate,” in an interview with the New York Times. Moore continued: “Michelle Jones served her time, and she served a long time, exactly what she deserved. A sentence is a sentence.”
On the left, our politics and our ideals simply don’t hold up if we don’t believe people can change. On the right, forgiveness is baked in Christianity, in which all sin can be forgiven with repentance.
So what does this mean for the abusive or serially-harassing men in our midst?
It means seeing their humanity and offering them mercy while requiring accountability and refusing to indulge narcissism. Everyone deserves grace, and the chance to transform into a better version of a damaged old self. That includes Weinstein, Spacey, Louis C.K., Roy Moore, Bill O’Reilly, Bill Cosby, Al Franken and the rest of this depressing and seemingly never-ending list.
But before graces comes atonement. Michelle Jones served her time; Weinstein, Cosby, Moore and the other men accused of serious crimes against women have served none. The best we might be able to hope for is a trial in the court of public opinion, and those rarely leave anyone feeling as though justice was done.
There is also the question of what atonement means, and what it looks like to truly take responsibility for one’s own choices and one’s own life. That varies with the specific act of wrongdoing. The current wave of harassment, assault and abuse allegations don’t always appropriately discern between feigning to grope a woman in a photo and crafting a sophisticated machine for sexual predation and intimidation of any woman who might speak out. Both are wrong, but these acts are not equal; neither should be their penalties. The seriousness of a man’s conduct must guide what his penance looks like, but every man currently in the limelight for behaving badly toward women (and the many who aren’t in its glow) have an obligation to act like adults and recognize that their actions have consequences. “Sorry” might not be enough to undo the damage they’ve caused.
For many of these men, one of those consequences should be a withdrawal from public life. Redemption and forgiveness are not synonymous with a return to fame, and not everyone deserves admiration and a vaunted public platform. Being forgiven of one’s sins does not mean full restoration to one’s previous seat of power, especially if that power was the platform and cover for abuse. When you hurt people badly enough, when you do it enough times and when you exploit your position as a trusted politician, official or cultural storyteller, you forfeit the right to public absolution. This goes for institutions as well, especially those that position themselves as arbiters of authority. The Catholic Church deserves ongoing skepticism for sexual abuse of children; the Mormon leaders who discouraged Rob Porters’ wives from speaking out about his abuse are themselves guilty of abusing their power and doing spiritual violence to the vulnerable.
There can be individual forgiveness and a radical personal evolution, but there must also be the humility to accept that some actions cannot be undone. Some doors will be closed forever. If you abused or killed a child, family members may not allow you to be alone with their children, even if you served your jail sentence; someone who fully comprehends the gravity of what they did will not resent that or insist that the rest of the world adjust to their idea of themselves as rehabilitated. If you used your position as a famous or powerful person to humiliate and harass women, you may lose your right to that position. You can still be a productive member of society, but you won’t have the same perch or privileges. It was fame and power, after all, that enabled you. Fame is not the same as the ability to make a living or to live a good life. It is a very specific desire for power and influence, and it is something that someone who has abused others should cede.
This is not a concept that many of the most powerful, but exploitative men ever seem to grasp. Their egos are simply too huge. A real reckoning with the damage one has done is a quiet, difficult and deep-dive internal process that forces you to become very, very small. These men never done “small.”
None of this means that the men who have harmed women can never have happy lives again, can never create art again, can never dedicate themselves to the causes they care about the most. It does mean that we will know the worst offenders understand the depths of their transgressions when they do their work quietly, without wanting or expecting public accolades; when they realize that public adoration, or even the public’s eyes and ears, are the price they have paid for what they chose to do.
For the rest of us, perhaps it’s not our place to offer absolution or forgiveness to famous men we’ve never met. Instead, we should consider our own values and ethics: How far can a famous man — especially one we like or support — go in harassing or assaulting women and have us still actively champion him or tacitly back him? What do offenders need to do for us to be comfortable with them resuming activities that initially brought them power or fame? How far is too far to earn back our trust?
Most importantly, we should get over the idea that any of these men is so individually special that we cannot live without him. All of the men who stand accused of these terrible acts, and many who commit them outside of the media glare, come from male-dominated industries — politics, entertainment, technology, law, business — where women are routinely pushed out and marginalized. How many women could have been political firebrands, media moguls, tech leaders and famous comedians if we didn’t so systematically suppress women’s voices, trample their ambitions and sexualize their presence? What would the world look like if it had been women picking, producing and casting the films that both reflect and shape our culture? How would the stories we watch about women look different? What would our country look like if women, who are more than half of the population, occupied more than half of our elected seats?
There is more than just sexual assault and harassment that demands reparation. While we give individual men the space to grow into better versions of themselves (hopefully quietly and privately), we should also take a collective look at ourselves and the society we have all had some small hand in building. There’s a whole lot we all have to atone for. And there is no better time than now to start making amends.