Monday, April 10, 2017

Bill O'Reilly and the Moral Landscape

I'm going to try to say something about the ongoing sexual harassment scandals at Fox News that is neither vindictive nor triumphal, but questioning. Because I really want to know what this says about our society.

When 21st Century Fox sent a team of lawyers into Fox News to investigate charges against former boss Roger Ailes, they also turned up a slew of allegations against top on-air personality Bill O'Reilly:
An investigation by The New York Times has found a total of five women who have received payouts from either Mr. O’Reilly or the company in exchange for agreeing to not pursue litigation or speak about their accusations against him. The agreements totaled about $13 million.

The reporting suggests a pattern: As an influential figure in the newsroom, Mr. O’Reilly would create a bond with some women by offering advice and promising to help them professionally. He then would pursue sexual relationships with them, causing some to fear that if they rebuffed him, their careers would stall. . . .
For the sordid details, I refer you to the Times piece. But I wanted to share this one for a glimpse into O'Reilly as a person:
Among Ms. Huddy’s complaints was that he made inappropriate phone calls, the lawyers said in correspondence obtained by The Times. The letter said that when he tried to kiss her, she pulled away and fell to the ground and he didn’t help her up. When she rebuffed him, he tried to blunt her career prospects. . . .
What does it all mean? Is Fox News an unusual workplace, where the strange tone set by the clumsily amorous Ailes, and the sexual atmosphere of news broadcasts by an array of women chosen as representatives of his fantasy life, led to rampant misbehavior? Are Ailes and O'Reilly both just cads?

Or is it that the top men in any hyper-competitive realm – politics, sports, the media – are likely to be testosterone-charged beasts like Bill Clinton, Tiger Woods and Bill O'Reilly? If so, how should we react to that? Try to ban them all from public life? Or accept a certain level of background scandal as the price for having forceful leadership? Millions of Americans seem to have made the second choice when they voted for Donald Trump. Seriously, if (say) half the prominent men in public life have sex scandals in their closets, we would be limiting our choices in a big way by excluding them. Would that be worth it? How many of my readers think sexual scandal would motivate them to support the presidential candidate of the other party?

Does power corrupt everyone? Should we start from the assumption that anyone who has had enough power for enough time has probably used it wickedly?

Could it be, as some feminists seem to think, that when men advocate "traditional values" they really just mean that women should submit sexually to powerful men, and therefore that any non-feminist man is inherently suspect? I don't think this is true in general, but I confess that after so many scandals I have come to instantly distrust anyone who stands up too loudly for morality.

I didn't say anything about Vice-President Pence's oath never to dine alone with a woman because 1) I doubt it hurt any woman's career, since Congressman and Governors hardly ever dine alone with anyone, preferring to schmooze at least a dozen potential campaign contributors at once; and 2) because the degree of temptation presented by the pumped up atmosphere of high politics in mixed company must be tremendous, and if the Pences want to deal with it through rigid rules that's not really my business. At least they are trying to stick to their moral principles in a world where hypocrisy seems to be the norm.

Lots of feminists attacked Mike Pence as weak, complaining that he is some sort of sissy for not wanting to be alone with a woman lest he lose control of himself. But that is too simple a reading of what goes on between men and women who spend a lot of time together. If the people at Jezebel and Ms think that most men and women are good, strong people who can work together and hang out together and have dinner together and keep their relationships perfectly collegial, and that only a handful of caddish or weak men would ever have any trouble with this, they are foolish. There is a real price to be paid for breaking down the walls between men's and women's work, and scandal is part of it.

The other thing I wanted to note was the relationship between all of this and the declining respect for institutions in our society. One of the major changes in the public discourse over the past 60 years has been the collapse of respect for the government, the church, big business, unions, school, universities, and just about every other big institution. Respect for authority figures – ministers, teachers, presidents – has also declined. This seems to be one of the things that most bothers conservative critics about our times. Critics like Bill O'Reilly, who built a huge audience by posing as America's moral scold, the one who said that Bill Clinton's shenanigans were unacceptable, that obsession over frivolous celebrities like the Kardashians is disgusting, that people should be upright and moral and if they do stray they should damn well shut up about it instead of making a shameful spectacle of their sins. Millions of people feel that we need such voices.

And now O'Reilly has hired one of the same people who helped Bill Clinton fight his own legal problems, "crisis communications expert" Mark Fabiani. Is is any wonder that people of "traditional morality" feel abandoned and adrift in our world?

I have a strong sense that the respect people used to feel for presidents and bishops was created and maintained by manipulating the media. Scandals were hushed up, good news trumpeted. In our world we have much more information about what presidents and bishops (and actresses, sports heroes, inventors, etc.) are really like, but the price for this is a destruction of idols. We have few heroes now, because we know all too well that everyone is human and weak.

I personally don't much care about that loss, but millions of people feel it keenly. Our world is more honest and open than that of 70 years ago, but also a lot more sordid. What is the effect of 24-hour scandal mongering? The constant assertion that everyone in public is lying, fornicating, double-dealing and covering up? Does it, as conservative critics complain, undermine everyone's morality by making it seem like everyone is doing it? Does it, maybe, reinforce political partisanship, by creating the impression that everyone is a moral failure except insofar as they support the right political party? Do we cling to strongly to progressive or conservative politics because those are the only values we have left? Besides getting rich and famous, that is. Speaking of which, is the generally sordid moral atmosphere related to the way CEOs and investors no longer feel any shame at getting as rich as possible by any means possible?

This the world we live in. There are no heroes now, only flawed human beings scraping by as best we can. This makes it hard to draw moral lines, but it is still imperative to do so. Whatever else is going on in the office, for powerful men to extort sexual favors from their female employees is still wrong, and we ought to take a stand against it. I commend the advertisers who have pulled out of O'Reilly's show in protest of his behavior. But I don't think that means we are in an easy situation. We have fought for and won a remarkable degree of personal freedom, smashing one rule and one barrier after another. It now falls to each of us to limit the harm we do with the freedom we have been given.

7 comments:

David said...

Two things: first, I'm somewhat bemused by your deep contemplation of this issue, since I find myself scarcely able to take my focus off the Schadenfreude I feel at the public discomfiture of Ailes and O'Reilly. Yay!

Second, on the issue of "are some or most powerful men testosterone-fueled beasts," I would suggest that some are, and others are not, and still others don't know what they are, but feel obliged and/or tempted to act like they are, because they think they'll be seen as sissies if they're not (can we not imagine a dinner in which Ailes turns to some male big shot at his network and says, in low, confidential tones, "You're like me. You're a stand-up guy who knows you have to take what you want," etc.). I think a lot of immorality of various sorts is in significant part motivated by a desire to be seen by others (if only the others in one's own inner audience) as strong, still young and in the game, not a chump, not afraid, etc., etc. One encounters in life a certain amount of, so to speak, moral pressure not to be good.

John said...

I suppose that is one reason why some people were so upset about the election of Trump, because it seems to imply that the way he acts toward women is part of what being successful means.

Shadow Flutter said...

The Hall of No shame is popular and overcrowded, with new contenders each week. This week it's the governor of Alabama. Who will it be next week? It's at the point of amusing, and I can't wait for the first Hall of No Shame museum to open to the public.

Remember the governor of New Jersey and his sex scandal? He didn't survive, but he tried his mightiest, even to the point of dragging his immigrant wife onto the dais. That poor woman. To this day I'm not sure she knew what was happening. Could she speak English? Perhaps he told her it was an award ceremony.

When Trump or O'Reilly look in a mirror, each sees the other staring back. That's how alike they are. Are we sure they weren't separated at birth?

I have this feeling that any member of a politician's nuclear family -- or at least the ones who have reached critical mass and are covered regularly -- live uncomfortable and slightly neurotic lives. This is especially true, I would think, of children.

There's been way too much breath wasted on Pence's oath.

My pet peeve -- well, one of them -- is these televised congressional inquiry du jours where the target of the day is verbally harassed and ridiculed in front of friends, spouses, sons and daughters. Kangaroo Courts. Once in a while it's hard to feel sorry for the sacrifice of the day -- you, know, like Martin shkreli who badly needs someone to wipe that smirk off his face -- but mostly it is easy, and that's because the members of the committees are so uncivil and unnecessarily nasty. Darrell Issa is of particular note. (Darrell Issa is an older Martin Shkreli. See what Martin has to look forward too when he grow up? He must be a happy man knowing.) But, hey, these are easy points to rack up for the home boys. So what the hell, let's go for it.

G. Verloren said...

@John

Well, I think you've hit the nail on the head, and that for a large subset of people in our society, the way he acts toward women is part of what being "successful" means.

There are wildly different competing notions in our society about how people should be treated. Some people value equality, fairness, cooperation, and reason. Others value heirarchy, discrimination, competition, and emotionality.

When Trump gloats about sexual assault by saying that "when you're a star, you can do anything", while many of us are horrified and disgusted, large numbers of a different kind of person have their eyes light up, fantasizing about having the sorts of levels of power and influence that would let them get away with being that immoral and monstrous.

We have a large subculture of predators in our society, who believe that might makes right, and that people who get exploited or taken advantage of only receive what they deserve because they were too weak or inferior to prevent it from happening. Their world is a dog-eat-dog one, where people are either winners or losers, and the point of life is to claw your way to the top by any means necessary, and nevermind how many people you have to hurt along the way to get there. They value power above all else, because in their minds, what use is it to be moral and principled if you can't force your morals and principles on others and the world around you?

And so we get people who grow up learning to accept awful things.

Little girls grow up being taught that if they want to succeed in life, they'd better learn to tolerate being treated like objects, being molested and violated, being belittled and lorded over, and having to always make a visible show of meekness and subserviance, while at the same time secretly working to secure a better position for themselves by being quietly manipulative and self serving. Little boys grow up being taught that if they want to succeed in life, they need to act like rabid wolverines and violently assert their dominance over everything else - treating all women like property, and all other men like threats to their very existence, never ever demonstrating "weakness" of any kind, because it can only invite ruin and suffering onto themselves.

And then the little boys and girls grow up into adults, and their worldviews shape their actions.

A female worker is receiving less pay than her male counterparts, but she keeps her mouth shut to avoid risking her position. Some of her female colleagues insist on rocking the boat, though, so she tries to talk them out of it, warning them that they are risking their places in the heirarchy. When they don't listen, she tries to distance herself from them, and even turns against them in order to ingratiate herself to her superiors, hoping to be elevated slightly for her "loyalty", while the rest of them are diminished.

The male CEO is facing pressure from some of his female employees for equal pay? His indoctrination says, "Resist them!", because only a pathetic loser would cave to pressure from weak and inferior females. Then a few of his male workers chime in on their behalf? Again he hears his upbgringing say, "Resist them!", because they are threats to his authority and he can't be perceived as weak. Besides - they're probably just secretly gunning for his position anyway!

And that's the most insidious factor to it all - the reflexive dismissal of the grievance itself. These women don't actually have a legitimate argument - they're just trying to get themselves a bigger slice of the pie than they deserve! These men joining in on their side don't actually care about the women - they're just cynically vying for dominance! Pushing for equal pay isn't really about societal fairness or justice or human decency - it's just a cynical excuse to conduct a power play!

Susi said...

Husband was a fast tracker in US Army, CIA, DIA and State Dept. who ended up at the top. He smoked/drank, but almost never cussed,nor pushed himself on women (I have inside knowledge). My Father was a regular guy who retired OK from the AF, but wouldn't have thought of pushing himself onto women, whom he mentored and promoted, happy in their success. They were raised by and married strong women.
Anecdotes aren't data.
However, I was a female protocol Lt at a major base during VN era and saw all kinds of men in positions of power. Their childhoods seemed to be part of the reason they behaved well or poorly toward women. Their strong feelings about ethical behavior, duty, and honor were inculcated early and guided their behavior.
Bush, Sr, was of my husband's era, and a close friend. They weren't perfect, but they worked to stay on the straight road, so they could look themselves in the mirror.
I saw the 60's culture up close. I date the lowering of ethical behavior to that era. We are seeing third generations take power and they were raised by my 60's culture.
The pendulum will swing. It always does. I hope to see it, but it may take longer than I have.

Susi said...

Husband was a fast tracker in US Army, CIA, DIA and State Dept. who ended up at the top. He smoked/drank, but almost never cussed,nor pushed himself on women (I have inside knowledge). My Father was a regular guy who retired OK from the AF, but wouldn't have thought of pushing himself onto women, whom he mentored and promoted, happy in their success. They were raised by and married strong women.
Anecdotes aren't data.
However, I was a female protocol Lt at a major base during VN era and saw all kinds of men in positions of power. Their childhoods seemed to be part of the reason they behaved well or poorly toward women. Their strong feelings about ethical behavior, duty, and honor were inculcated early and guided their behavior.
Bush, Sr, was of my husband's era, and a close friend. They weren't perfect, but they worked to stay on the straight road, so they could look themselves in the mirror.
I saw the 60's culture up close. I date the lowering of ethical behavior to that era. We are seeing third generations take power and they were raised by my 60's culture.
The pendulum will swing. It always does. I hope to see it, but it may take longer than I have.

David said...

@Susi

I think it depends on what you mean by the 60s. The sexuality of suit-wearing alpha males like Ailes, O'Reilly, and Trump has a lot more to do with the early 60s Rat Pack culture than it has to do with the Summer of Love, the hippies, or anything of that sort--especially since these three have practically built their careers on the Right's unending horror at the Sixties Left and everything it stood for.