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A Radical Idea for Predatory Men: Confession, then Amnesty

7 minute read
Belinda Luscombe is an editor at large at TIME, where she has covered a wide swath of topics, but specializes in interviews, profiles, and essays. In 2010, she won the Council on Contemporary Families Media Award for her stories on the ways marriage is changing. She is also author of Marriageology: the Art and Science of Staying Together.

In one of his latest Netflix specials, comedian Dave Chappelle offers a solution to the fallout from all the sexual harassment allegations: give perpetrators a chance to confess their misdeeds in a public forum. The idea comes from councils that have been set up to heal divides within the public after oppressive regimes. If Nelson Mandela used one to help reset race relations after apartheid, why not use another to dismantle the patriarchy? “Without irony, I’ll say this: the cure for L.A. is in South Africa,” says Chappelle in his characteristic growl.

South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) had three purposes: make sure prior human rights violations were acknowledged and recorded; allow for both reparation and rehabilitation for the victims of apartheid; and permit the perpetrators to confess fully and perhaps be given amnesty, though most did not receive it.

Chappelle, who in his routine takes up for disgraced fellow comedian Louis C.K., sees the TRC as a way of meting out justice to those accused of sexual harassment without erasing all their humanity and of acknowledging that harassers can be cogs in a machine too. And he’s not the only one recommending it: In October, City University of New York journalism professor Jan Simpson also called for a commission.

“The end of apartheid should have been a f—ing bloodbath by any metric in human history, and it wasn’t,” says Chappelle, in a serious moment. “The only reason it wasn’t is because Desmond Tutu and Mandela and all these guys figured out that if a system is corrupt, then the people who adhere to the system, and are incentivized by that system, are not criminals. They are victims. The system itself must be tried. But… the only way we can figure out what the system is, is if everyone says what they did. Tell them how you participated.”

Chappelle is not an expert on gender relations — and has been criticized for victim-blaming women in his new specials. But he has a point.

Different sexes, not unlike different races, need to find a way to co-exist and work together both without fear of being harassed, belittled or assaulted and without needing to worry about having their overtures or jokes weaponized. Moreover, while there are some offenders, including Harvey Weinstein, for whom redemption is hard to imagine, there are others whose transgressions should not necessarily erase their contributions, both past and future. (Chappelle seems to feel C.K. fits in this latter category.) Nobody should get off scot-free, since many women took considerable risks to bring these abuses to light. But if it’s culture change we’re after, not much is as useful as a public 360-degree accounting of the problem.

How would a gender-based TRC work? According to Ilan Lax, a lawyer who was a member of the human rights violations committee and the amnesty committee of the South African commission and was a policy advisor involved in the setting up of the TRC in Sierra Leone, commissions work best as a way to start a conversation. In South Africa, perpetrators and victims told their stories publicly. The testimonies were recorded, and a panel decided whether amnesty was warranted. “For many victims of apartheid what had to change was that their reality needed to be affirmed,” says Lax. “Until your reality is affirmed you feel like you’re a bit mad.”

An example of the value of the public acknowledgment was just played out between Dan Harmon, the showrunner of the cult TV hit Community and one of the show’s former writers, Megan Ganz, who accused him on Twitter of harassing her. On his podcast, Harmon goes to considerable lengths to not just apologize but fully detail what he did. “I crushed on her and resented her for not reciprocating it, and the entire time I was the one writing her paychecks and in control of whether she stayed or went and whether she felt good about herself or not, and said horrible things,” says Harmon. “Things I never, ever would have done if she had been male.” Ganz, for her part, urged people to listen to the podcast (the apology begins just after the 18-minute mark). “What I didn’t expect was the relief I’d feel just hearing him say these things actually happened,” Ganz wrote. “I didn’t dream it. I’m not crazy. Ironic that the only person who could give me that comfort is the one person I’d never ask.” She added that it felt important to say publicly that she forgave him.

Public processes undertaken by the victims and perpetrators like this could be a more constructive outlet for reprisals against decades of injustice than the current hodgepodge accuse-and-destroy or pass-along-rumors method. It might encompass more than just those who are famous enough to make it into the media. It might bring about something far more substantive than the current rare confessionals. And it would be a lesson for future generations on how to seek justice, how to make amends and how to forgive.

South Africa’s TRC became a prominent example of what’s known as restorative justicand has been echoed in dozens of similar processes since, from Sierra Leone to the Solomon Islands to Canada and the U.S. While it could only provide a platform for relatively few victims to testify, says Lax, “the process contributed to a better picture of context, motives of those involved and affected and better understanding of what had transpired and why.”

Perhaps the new council headed up by Anita Hill could perform a similar function today. If people speak frankly of what was done to them and what they did, all the muck is cleared out of the system, and we can see where the problem areas are. The South African commission revealed key details about how police covered up the killing of the anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko in custody, for example; the more recent Canadian commission on residential schools for aboriginals showed they were systematically wiping out a culture under the guise of education.

Admittedly, the original TRC failed in many key regards. “Long-term race relations are still very fraught,” says Anthea Garman, an associate journalism professor at Rhodes University, South Africa, who covered the special hearings into media complicity with apartheid. Not all of its recommendations were followed. “The systemic ordinary everyday racism managed to escape the focus so that the ‘beneficiaries’ of apartheid weren’t challenged about their complicity.” Moreover, while reparations were promised to victims, and prosecution recommended for the worst perpetrators, there was very little follow-up.

Lax points to the failure or inability of the South African government to follow the Commission’s recommendations as one of the reasons that race relations aren’t better in the country. And the TRC couldn’t do much about the economic, political and social systems that did not also undergo the same kind of reckoning or were not robust enough to implement the TRC’s suggestions about punishment or reparations.

Nevertheless, it was a good way of shining a light on issues that had been long hidden in that society, to narrow down what former Liberal Party of Canada leader Michael Ignatieff has called “the permissible lies” people tell about their own society. And it could be an important first step on the path to gender harmony, even if the movement takes generations. Lax says the most common message he gives to people seeking to mend their large national rifts is this: Reconciliation is a journey, not an event.

Or, as Chappelle puts it to women in his special: “You got all the bad guys scared, and that’s good. But the minute they’re not scared anymore, it will get worse than it was before. Fear does not make lasting peace.”

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