Whatever the merits of the complaints against Herman Cain, conservatives should not make the mistake of minimizing the harm done by sexual harassment. In a few places, I have read good-hearted folk misunderstanding the entire issue.
They act as if there is no moral issue to sexual harassment at all. You would think the problem was dreamed up by trial lawyers merely to sue innocent companies. Watching even a few “Perry Mason” episodes (to cite a “harmless” example) reminds a person of how safe it was to marginalize female associates and reduce them to a “honey” or “sweetie.” I once worked in a plant where female employees, and those of us wishing to be moral, were forced to look at porn pinups hanging in prominent places.
Surely ending this was a good thing?
Not all changes in the culture are bad, and one good one is that sexual harassment is more widely viewed as bad. We are all trying to be better people in this area.
Of course, good people at the Bible Institute of Los Angeles long ago understood that the workplace or a ministry was not a place for some kinds of private behavior. At their best, these great people had a higher standard than our own: Demanding that talk be noble, good, true and beautiful.
No Christian ever defended crude and intentionally demeaning language.
Still, too often, “Boys were allowed to be boys” or stereotypes that did not transgress piety were allowed. This did not help “boys” or anybody else. No society can afford to marginalize talented people or put them in a hostile workplace.
People in my generation had and still have to learn this lesson.
It seems so obvious to say, but still it is worth repeating: Sexual harassment is bad.
Of course that means that a false accusation is also bad or that trivializing real sexual harassment is equally harmful. However, there is little evidence that such trivialization happens as often as the vice itself or some people fear.
Nor does the fact that some media figures or ideologues have cried wolf at innocent men make real wolves any less dangerous. Power-mongers will make any cause, no matter how noble, a means to get influence and money.
However one views “feminism” or however one thinks sexual harassment should be handled, it is wrong. It is not, thank God, an unpardonable sin, but wrong it is. In this area, like many others, doing the wrong thing, repenting and making amends must be possible. None of us is perfect and I certainly wish to judge with mercy as I hope to be judged when I make mistakes.
By the 1990s any business leader like Cain knew the rules had changed. Even if you did not agree with all the methods used to bring about positive change, nobody of sense defended sexual harassment as necessary to do business. It isn’t. Cain was not working in Perry Mason’s America, or he would not have been the head of any powerful association.
If he was guilty, then it reflects on his judgment. Depending on the severity of the offense, it might be forgivable, but not of course if he merely denies it. How can one learn through denial?
Again, I am not judging Cain’s innocence or guilt, merely pointing out that nobody should defend him by minimizing the harm of what he did. We will never elect a perfect person president. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were great leaders that did bad things by our standards and by the timeless standards of Christianity. A wise voter, however, voted for Washington or Lincoln despite their vices, not because of them. We cannot praise good men by faint damns of their evils.
We don’t do anything for Washington by minimizing the evils of his owning slaves. We don’t justify Lincoln by pretending that some of his abuse of civil liberties in pursuing the war was not bad. Republican voters will have to decide if Cain did what he now denies and how severe this fault is.
We should not pretend that sexual harassment is not wrong or unimportant.
John Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute and professor of philosophy at Biola University. In 1996 he received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Rochester. Reynolds can be found blogging regularly at Scriptorium Daily.
Publication date: November 9, 2011